In 1993, it appeared that Japan had taken a major step toward economic and political reform. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had dominated Japanese politics since the end of World War II, lost its parliamentary majority and was replaced by a seven-party coalition. But three years and four prime ministers later, that step has turned out to be much smaller than anticipated.
Last Sunday the LDP captured 239 seats in the new 500-seat lower house of parliament, virtually assuring the continuance in power of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. Pork-barrel politics and a one-party political system have proven difficult to crack, despite electoral reforms.
All was not lost, however. Strict laws limited the campaign period to the final 12 days before the election - in contrast to the United States, where campaigns seem interminable. Also, electoral-system reforms did away with large districts represented by groups of lawmakers, a setup that had encouraged politicians to focus on political largesse, rather than on issues.
With its narrow victory, the LDP-led government now has several major tasks ahead:
First, it must fulfill its promise to streamline the large and powerful bureaucracy, an undertaking that may be difficult because of the LDP's close ties with long-serving bureaucrats.
Second, it will have to steady an economy that has not fully recovered from its recession. After expanding at an annualized rate of 12 percent in the first quarter of 1996, the economy experienced a contraction in the second quarter. And Monday's dip in the Nikkei average showed the concerns of some investors.
Third, the new government must continue to work with the US to hammer out joint geostrategic and economic agreements. While a US presence remains critical in the Pacific region to ensure stability, the criminal acts of some American troops in Okinawa have caused many Japanese to question the need for foreign forces.
Japan must also agree to curtail restrictive business practices. Resolving the dispute with the US over the accessibility of the Japanese photographic film and paper market will be one of several upcoming tests.
Hashimoto has a long road ahead. In a recent speech, LDP General Secretary Koichi Kato stated: "The LDP's adjustment to the new politics of Japan makes us the force for the future." Without continued political and economic reform, though, the "new politics of Japan" could easily slip back into the old, familiar ways.