A Matter of Fortune

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TIM LARIMER/TokyoKeizo Obuchi was a fatalist. I am unlucky, he told reporters four days before he suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. He was referring to scandals over police cover-ups that had cast a cloud over his administration. Although the alleged misdeeds didn't happen on his watch, the discovery of them did. Yet the former Japanese leader could also be an optimist. When he became Prime Minister 20 months ago, Obuchi credited his rise to the top of the political ladder to blind fortune. I've been blessed with luck, he often said. In either case the 62-year-old politician applied superstition even-handedly, blaming fate for his misfortunes and crediting it for his successes. It was as if what he said or did mattered little.

Powerlessness was part of the image Obuchi cultivated, portraying himself as an aw-shucks boy from the country who just stumbled into the leadership of the world's second-largest economy. It was an effective strategy, rendering him likable, unthreatening and, like former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, coated in Teflon. Voters didn't blame him for Japan's problems because they didn't think he was capable of doing anything about them.

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E.L. Doctorow's enthralling City of God examines religious faith at the end of a bloody centuryHis rise to power was indeed startling, although it shouldn't have been. The bumpkin image was always a benign lie: Obuchi was a shrewd politician cut from the same cloth as most of his colleagues in Japan's dominant Liberal Democratic Party. Schooled at Waseda University, breeding ground for many pols, he was elected at the age of 26 to fill his deceased father's post in the lower house of the Diet in 1963. Friends say he always felt intimidated by two giants of Japanese politics, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Takeo Fukuda, former prime ministers who came from the same region as Obuchi. To fight against his inferiority, says journalist Kenji Goto, who knew Obuchi for nearly four decades, he had to have his own image. The simpleton politician was born.

That's why his election as Prime Minister in July 1998 surprised--and worried--many people inside and outside of Japan. Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, he was thought to be a nice enough guy but not an inspirational leader. Cold pizza is how one American commentator famously described him. But Obuchi proved the skeptics wrong, as the back-room negotiating skills he honed making his way up the ranks of the ldp were put to work uniting different factions at a time when it looked as if the country's economy might collapse and drag the rest of the world down with it. That nightmare didn't come true. He was very, very Japanese, says Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo who was once a member of Obuchi's ldp but later defected. He might have been an outstanding thinker, but he was not outspoken about it.

To be sure, Obuchi's economic plan relied on the tried-and-true formula of his many predecessors: spend, spend, spend. He had the dubious distinction of being Japan's biggest disburser of public funds, having pushed through more than $300 billion in government projects. But he also won approval for shoring up shaky banks and, perhaps more importantly, he didn't intercede when foreign companies invested in big Japanese firms like automaker Nissan.

In recent weeks, though, events seemed to conspire against him, and friends and aides say the fatigue was showing. Corruption scandals had begun to pile up--one involving police in Niigata prefecture and another touching his own family and friends. His fragile three-party coalition was unraveling, as a one-time ally, Ichiro Ozawa, made good on his threat to pull his Liberal Party out of the government. The numbers on the economy were still mixed. Obuchi had a knack for surviving adversity, coming out on top when everything seemed hopeless. He might have done so again, for he had one extraordinarily good piece of luck: his political opponents bungled every opportunity he gave them to seize the day.

Japanese leaders seem to come and go with the seasons, becoming indistinguishable from one another. During the tenures of Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton, Japan will have had 13 prime ministers--more if Obuchi's successor, Yoshiro Mori, doesn't last. This fluidity, coupled with a consensus-style of government, means an individual prime minister can't make much of a mark on the public memory.

Obuchi may well disappear into the long list of the unremarkable. That, however, is the one fate he wanted to avoid. What drove the man, ultimately, was a sense of history. He cherished his ceremonial role of announcing the name of the new imperial era, Heisei, after Emperor Hirohito died in 1989. Colleagues said Obuchi wanted to survive in office long enough to be the first prime minister of the 21st century and to officiate over the summit of G-8 countries this summer. He made the first milestone but not the second. These ambitions themselves are revealing. It wasn't that Keizo Obuchi wanted to change history through his actions. He just wanted to be there.