Why We Chose Him
For fumbling. For bumbling. For alternating shows of ineffectuality with promises of competence, sending Japanese stocks to hell and back and bringing Wall Street along for the ride. For reminding us all over again that the global economy is only as strong as its weakest superpower, and that if Japan tumbles into the abyss we might all take the plunge, Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori is TIME.com's person of the week.
Mori started off the week in full-on kabuki mode, denying Monday that he'd told a weekend meeting of party elders that he'd resign. The denial, universally deemed mere lame-duck face-saving in advance of upcoming summits with George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, tipped the Japanese markets over into panic mode and sent the Nikkei 500 plunging to lows not seen since 1985, the long-ago days when Japan was an economic juggernaut to be emulated.
The verdicts rolled in: Japan's economic growth was the faintest of heartbeats; it was shackled by deflation, record unemployment and self-feeding consumer recalcitrance; its banks were on the verge of bankruptcy and its government was drowning in debt. With the U.S. in a slowdown of its own, Japan's exports couldn't keep it hanging on, and Mori's latest missteps seemed to prove that the country's deeply sclerotic government had neither the will nor the agility to do what needed to be done.
Black Tuesdays with Mori?
With the prospect of a Japanese coronary turning widespread gloom into naked fear, Wall Street tumbled Monday and Wednesday with the barest of bounces in between, and revisited some milestones of its own. The Dow, shedding more than 800 points, dipped below 10,000 for the first time since fall. The NASDAQ slumped under 2000 and officially erased two years of tech run-up. The S&P finally notched its 20 percent and joined the bear club.
And suddenly everybody remembered the global economy, and the Asian flu of 1997 and how it could be a whole lot worse this time around. Japan, despite a decade of slow descent, is still the world's second biggest economy, and besides that the biggest foreign owner of U.S. Treasury bills. If falling Japanese stocks drag down the Japanese banks that amazingly use those very stocks as collateral, they might have to start selling. All those Treasuries hit the market, U.S. interest rates hit the roof a familiar worry, but this year? Sayonara slowdown, hello recession.
And then there was hope, in the form of more kabuki: the lame-duck Mori urging his ministers to tackle the banking system's $600 billion bad-loan problem, and finance minister Kiichi Miyazawa promising fiscal guarantees for a bailout scheme that many wonder whether the government can afford. But the task forces are meeting and ministers are huddling, and in Japan, that constitutes dramatic action. In the financial markets there was hope that Mori's puppetmasters in the beleaguered Liberal Democratic Party might just be moved to vigor in the cause of self-preservation.
A boat sinks, he stays on the links
In his short term after succeeding stroke-felled Keizo Obuchi, Mori has been a spectacularly tone-deaf politician even for Japan's doddering ruling elite. This is a man who decided to finish his round of golf after being told of the Greeneville sub disaster and no one was particularly surprised. For the past decade, Japan's slow slide and slower internal response have been marginally better cause in the U.S. for schadenfreude than sympathy. But feeling superior is one thing; getting dragged into the tar pit of global depression by the industrialized world's most stubbornly ineffectual government is quite another.
And the head of that government, at least in name and at least for now, is Yoshiro Mori.