Obuchi Picks Aide Linked to Buddhists for Cabinet

August 1999
By Howard W. French

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi shuffled his Cabinet on Tuesday, adding a member of a Buddhist-backed political party to give his government the support of the largest coalition in Japan in over four decades.

Japanese political analysts say the addition of the New Komeito Party to the coalition will permit Obuchi to rapidly push through a series of major bills dealing with Japan's economy and its role in the world.

The most dramatic of these would allow Japan to participate in international peacekeeping operations and to defend itself more strongly against military attack. Since its defeat in World War II, a constitution written by the United States prohibited most military activities.

Other expected initiatives include badly needed changes in the financing of nursing care for the elderly and for social welfare programs.

New Komeito is the political arm of one of Japan's largest and most controversial religious groups, the lay Buddhist organization known as Soka Gakkai. The expansion of the governing coalition to include the group came only after weeks of negotiations that threatened to rupture the Liberal Democratic Party's existing coalition.

Although Soka Gakkai maintains that it is independent, many Japanese suspect it is dominated by Soka Gakkagi, its Buddhist parent organization and its shadowy honorary chairman, Daisuki Ikeda.

Although, the Cabinet reshuffle brought about a near wholesale turnover of the government, Obuchi retained his top economic advisers, including Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.

But Obuchi replaced the chief of the Financial Reconstruction Commission, Hakuo Yanagisawa, who was widely respected among Western banking industry analysts for the way he has handled problems in Japan's financial system. He was succeeded by Michio Ochi, a former economic planning minister.

Among the new appointments are Yohei Kono as foreign minister. Kono is a former deputy prime minister who has also served as foreign minister in a previous government.

Notwithstanding Obuchi's newly strengthened parliamentary position, many political analysts here say that there are still threatening clouds on the horizon. The most immediate of these involves perceptions that the government mishandled last week's accident at a nuclear fuel-reprocessing plant.

Japanese press reports on the accident focused abundantly on the bureaucratic bungling of the emergency response.

Most accounts made it appear that the prime minister and his top aides continued to be more preoccupied with negotiations over the new Cabinet than with the nuclear disaster.

"This was a disaster that may have major consequences on their future nuclear policy, but one wonders just how seriously this is being taken," said John Neuffer, a political analyst with Mitsui Marine Research Institute.

Obuchi's longer-range threat, in terms of public opinion, comes from the strong opposition in many quarters to the entry of what many consider a religious party into politics. Although his own poll numbers are at their highest level ever, recent polls indicate that as many as 51 percent of voters oppose the Buddhist-related party's entry into the coalition.

"If Komeito were outside of the government, the price of gaining their cooperation would be higher, and that is why Obuchi has invited them in," said Seizaburo Sato, deputy director of the National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies. "But Komeito is regarded suspiciously because it is not organized like other parties. It is dominated by one individual."


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