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Japan's leader leaves turmoil in Tokyo to hold tough talks in U.S.


TOKYO -- The 13 hours Japan's Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa spent in the air en route to Washington for meetings today with President Clinton may be as good as it gets.

Left behind in Tokyo were a crumbling government and a depressed economy. Ahead are difficult, perhaps impossible, trade discussions with the United States over Japan's notoriously closed markets, discussions that, as Mr. Hosokawa reportedly said Wednesday, are "completely stalled."

The tough circumstances are in sharp contrast to the situation just three months ago at their last meeting in Seattle. Then, the discussions were less pointed and Mr. Hosokawa had just won a major political victory for political reform.

But the victory proved to be illusory. Subsequent reverses and round-the-clock political skirmishes have tarnished Mr. Hosokawa's early display of charisma and elegance, creating perceptions of weak leadership and ideological uncertainty.

The public has followed these events eagerly. Indeed, after decades of citizen apathy amid a stable and successful electoral system, volatile politics has temporarily replaced sumo wrestling the national spectator sport. Catching the fervor, newspapers and popular magazines have added gray-suited politicians to their staple coverage of crime and semi-clad women. Serious books on reforming Japan's governance have joined the best-seller list.

In coming to the United States, some of the old -- will likely be evident in photo opportunities. Mr. Hosokawa tentatively plans to visit Arlington Cemetery, a move that will underscore the bold step he took soon after assuming office in August when he became the first post-World War II Japanese prime minister to acknowledge any Japanese responsibility for the conflict.

But this trip has long been thought of as more than symbolic. It was scheduled last summer by Mr. Hosokawa's predecessor, Kiichi Miyazawa, and Mr. Clinton as the beginning of a less acrimonious, more productive trade relationship between the world's two largest economies.

The achievements have been modest and unsurprising. Preliminary talks between Japan and the United States have been positive when the issues are global, for instance in the areas of AIDS and population control, or on security issues, most notably the growing threat from North Korea.

When the discussions have shifted to the core reason for Mr. Hosokawa's visit, resolving Japan's $57 billion trade surplus with the United States, the positions of both sides have been intractable.

Conflict has been evident since early in the fall, when negotiations stalled over a key condition accepted by the two leaders -- benchmarks for expanding U.S. exports. U.S. officials have come through Tokyo on a weekly basis to emphasize a PTC Clinton administration position that it is fed up with Japan's notoriously closed markets and intends to extract indisputable proof of change.

The Japanese response? The officials negotiating for the country's powerful ministries recoiled.

Among their primary objections, they have argued that several of the sectors subject to negotiations, for instance, autos and auto parts, are outside of the government sphere of control; that efforts to use government initiatives to forcibly open markets would undermine U.S. approved efforts to deregulate the economy; that the deficit is not Japan's fault but rather a product of excess U.S. spending vs. investment; and finally, that even if ,, Japan is at fault, the country is too weak to do anything about it.

According to reports from Washington, prospects for an agreement during today's meeting do not look good. "Up to the present time there's been very scant progress," Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said after a hastily arranged meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Tsutomu Hata.

The sentiment was also reported by other officials, who emphasized that the United States was not prepared to accept what it considered a bad deal just to get a face-saving agreement.

In Japan, a Trade Ministry official cautioned: "The U.S. shouldn't beat up on Hosokawa now." He added: "It should wait for a new government, then beat up on whoever heads it."

When that would occur is uncertain, but it may not be long. The six months the Hosokawa coalition has been in office have been enough to expose broad philosophical divisions among the seven parties involved.

Then, too, a critical reform package had to be modified to suit the opposition Mr. Hosokawa had supposedly deposed because its corrupt politics. A tax reduction bill succeeded only when irresponsible tactics were used, providing the benefits up front and worrying about how to pay for them later.

Perhaps most devastating for the coalition, however, are the hundreds of petty grievances that have been accruing steadily during recent months.

Decisions are becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. Eleventh-hour agreements, once a staple of Japanese negotiations, have become obsolete in favor of deals struck in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth hours.

An implication of the long hours is how eager, despite the difficulties, the current administration is to persevere. That should be equally evident in the Washington talks.

The United States remains Japan's largest trading partner and its closest ally. In Tokyo, there are few illusions about the importance of this relationship and the need for Japan's recession-bound economy to maintain full access to the U.S. market.

Echoing a common line, the Asahi Shimbun, the national newspaper where Mr. Hosokawa once worked, opined that the summit with Mr. Clinton will decide the fortune of the prime minister's government. Some deal will no doubt be sought, some accommodations made.

If he fails, Mr. Hosokawa will have a long flight home.

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