The Replacement Leader

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With the prime minister in a coma, a shaky government coalition in trouble, a volcano erupting and an economy still stuck in low gear, who did Japan's politicians find to lead them out of this mess? Some would describe him as a scandal-tainted party hack--a man with no discernible ideology who in recent months has managed to insult Americans, Okinawans, Osakans, people with aids, the upper chamber of parliament, newspaper reporters, teachers and leaders of opposition political parties. Oh, and he is said to be so cautious that he has the heart of a flea.

Interesting choice.

Yoshiro Mori was picked to replace an incapacitated Keizo Obuchi last week primarily because within the backroom world of Japanese politics, he's known as a coordinator. Since the dominant Liberal Democratic Party is riddled with factionalism and the ruling three-party coalition is in danger of crumbling, what the government needs most is a man who can hold things together. In that regard, Mori is cast from the same mold as his predecessor Obuchi. If you prefer the status quo, Mori is the choice, says Yasunori Sone, an expert in Japanese politics at Keio University.

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E.L. Doctorow's enthralling City of God examines religious faith at the end of a bloody centuryEven members of Mori's own party have been hard-pressed to laud their new leader. We don't have any qualified candidates, so he'll have to do, said lower house member Kazuo Aichi last week. Another Diet member, Ichizo Ohara, allowed that Mori was good at arranging things. But Hiromu Nonaka, considered the shadow shogun of Obuchi's administration, said last fall that Mori lacks quality as a politician. Recently, Mori called Osaka a spit-pot where people care only about money and said Americans stocked up on guns in preparation for Y2K while Japanese bought rice.

It's difficult to attach any particular issue to Mori's name, except for the kind of big-ticket project that ldp politicians typically love. He has pushed aggressively to build a new bullet train route to his home region, Kanazawa, on Japan's west coast, to the tune of $14 billion. During his first press conference last week, he made it clear he will continue the profligate spending of the Obuchi administration, which has doled out more than $300 billion. I want to continue with public works projects, as they have a natural impact on the economy, he said. Right now the economy is slowly recovering. We want it to turn into a full-fledged recovery.

Mori has politics in his blood. Both his father and grandfather were popular mayors in his hometown. But he didn't have a happy childhood and has complained that his father didn't have time for him. His father was drafted into the army just after Mori was born, in 1937, and didn't come home until after World War II had ended. His mother died around that time, and Mori was raised by his grandparents.

He initially worked as a newspaper reporter in Tokyo and was elected to the Diet for the first time in 1969. He has served stints as minister of education and of trade. Like many politicians, he was tainted by the 1988 Recruit insider-trading scandal that brought down the administration of then-Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. Mori received 30,000 shares of Recruit Cosmos stock before it was issued. He was also accused of bribery in connection with two other scandals exposed in 1992 and 1997, charges he continues to deny. So many politicians were implicated that most, like Mori, survived unscathed.

He has much in common with Obuchi. Like his predecessor, Mori is not really aggressive in presenting his own views, or he doesn't have any views, says political analyst Shigenori Okazaki. Both 62, Mori and Obuchi attended Waseda University at the same time and were partners in the university's Yubenkai, a debating society that has produced many political luminaries. They belonged to rival ldp factions but employed similar tactics to win favor from colleagues.

If their political styles are alike, their personal appearances contrast sharply. Obuchi has always seemed somewhat nerdy; he looked awkward throwing out the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs baseball game last May. Mori is a physically imposing man, standing 1.75 m tall and weighing 98 kg, and was sometimes mistaken for a bodyguard when he accompanied his political elders. He played rugby in high school and has surrounded himself with friends from the sports world, like Yomiuri Giants outfielder Hideki Matsui. He has recruited three retired athletes--an Olympic skater, a soccer player and a wrestler--to run for the legislature. He follows the rugby spirit--in other words, the spirit of fair play, says the wrestler, Hiroshi Hase, now a member of the upper house of parliament. He values teamwork and harmony. He listens to people and acts like a commander. Mori will need those skills and more, for the challenge he now faces makes a rugby scrum look like a tea party.