Thu, 09 Nov 2000

Mori's diplomatic flaws make him desperately unpopular

By Henrik Bork

TOKYO (DPA): It takes a while before the Japanese turn on their premier. But Yoshiro Mori has provoked them. "Go home!" and "Resign now!" are just some of the shouts that went up from the crowd when the head of the national government turned up at a baseball game in Tokyo. Television loves this kind of thing. And this kind of thing has turned up at just the right moment, now that public confidence in Mori has fallen to less than 20 percent, according to polls. A team of commentators explains that in Japan this 20 percent threshold has traditionally signaled the beginning of the end for an unpopular premier.

From commuters eating their noodles at a stand to journalists in the government quarter in Tokyo, anyone who mentions Mori's name these days includes the word hazukashi in their assessment - they think the man is simply an embarrassment.

Mori has his big mouth to thank for this appraisal. Though in office no more than six months, he has still managed to compile a long list of gaffes and slip-ups. He once described Japan as "the land of the gods, with the emperor at its center", a statement which awakened unpleasant memories of the nation's military past.

Another example: he called for a massive IT revolution, only to admit shortly afterwards that he had never sent an e-mail in his entire life. And recently he boasted to British prime minister Tony Blair about a questionable diplomatic undertaking of his with Pyongyang. According to reports in the media, Mori apparently suggested to the North Koreans that they release 10 Japanese citizens kidnapped in the 1970s by handing them over to a third country.

Among other things, the ministers in Mori's cabinet have been doing their best to make the worst of a bad lot. Since conspiratorial politicians nominated the premier last April to fill the gap left by Keizo Obuchi's sudden death, the government has witnessed an almost continual stream of scandals.

Two ministers have resigned their posts, the most recent being the chief cabinet secretary, Hidenao Nakagawa. Nakagawa styled himself as "no saint" when resigning: he is alleged to have had a young mistress and discussed her drug problems with her. Mori had to take to the stage once more to apologize for his government. Yasuo Fukuda has since replaced Nakagawa, and one of his first tasks was to comment on his boss's miserable showings in the opinion polls. "We are taking these figures very seriously," he said.

The same can be said for the premier's enemies within his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). "If it keeps going like this, the LDP will not win the next election without the grace of God and Buddha's help," says Koichi Kato, an influential LDP figure and the party's former general secretary. He is tipped to be Mori's successor and his criticism has been interpreted as an attempt to get into poll position.

Luckily for Mori, the next elections will not happen until next July, when half of the deputies in the upper house will offer themselves for re-election. Speculation is currently concentrating on whether or not Kato's supporters in the LDP will try to topple Mori before then. Such rumors certainly do nothing to reassure investors and politicians all over Asia: they would much prefer to see stability reign supreme in the world's second- largest economic power.

However, the next generation of LDP politicians is already planning an open revolt. "Someone has to stand up and tell this emperor that he has no clothes on," says Nobuteru Ishihara, son of Tokyo's conservative mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, and adds that Mori should resign.