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Japanese Prime Minister On a Roll

April 28, 1999

TOKYO (AP) _ Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has left nothing to chance, not even the ceremonial first pitch he will throw out at a Chicago Cubs game this weekend.

He teetered a bit Wednesday while practicing his throw, but that was just rusty ball playing. Obuchi is actually the picture of confidence heading into a summit with President Clinton on Monday.

Washington _ which has long prodded Tokyo to do more to fix its recession-hit economy _ can expect a more assured, more assertive Obuchi during his six-day U.S. trip that begins Thursday, which includes stops in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Once ridiculed as utterly lacking in pizzazz, the 61-year-old politician won a major victory this week when parliament’s powerful lower house endorsed a set of bills deepening military ties with the United States _ proof that he has what it takes to get things done in the world of Japanese politics.

Fired up by that victory, Obuchi is hoping to bring up Tokyo’s worries about a rising protectionist mood in the United States _ a development that has the White House concerned as well.

Obuchi acknowledged the trade imbalance between the two nations is a problem. The U.S. trade deficit hit a record $169 billion last year _ $64 billion of it with Japan.

But Obuchi said he was determined to stress a wider perspective.

``We should not forget that Asia is being saved by the huge U.S. trade deficit,″ Obuchi said at a news conference for foreign reporters at his residence.

``We should not be bound by bilateral issues, but we should talk about how the United States and Japan should cooperate globally.″

Obuchi’s recent track record gives him reason for confidence.

He has relied on consensus-building in Parliament to slip through a record economic stimulus plan, including public works and tax breaks, as well as a bailout for debt-ridden banks. Both were seen as critical to begin pulling the world’s second-largest economy from its eight-year slump.

Last month, he managed to get the national budget passed in the swiftest time ever for a postwar prime minister.

And topping Obuchi’s offerings to the summit is the package of bills tightening Japan’s military alliance with the United States. The new defense guidelines offer an excellent opportunity for Obuchi to play up the positive side of U.S.-Japanese relations.

The parliamentary debate on the bills could have stretched into a nightmare, given the strong pacifist streak in Japanese public opinion.

But thanks to growing fears about a security threat from North Korea, the bills passed the lower house Tuesday and are virtually guaranteed passage in the upper house next month.

Working on his pitching Wednesday, Obuchi wondered whether he would be throwing to Chicago slugger Sammy Sosa _ extremely popular in baseball-crazy Japan.

And he shrugged off his unflattering portrayal in the Japanese news media, which has likened him to cold pizza.

``I think the analogy was about what an unpopular, incompetent and unexciting kind of person I was supposed to be,″ he said, adding: ``I’m still thinking about whether to include a pizza joke in my speech during the trip.″

Obuchi appeared relaxed and confident while chatting with reporters.

``I knew all I needed to do was build a track record as prime minister and people would understand,″ he said.

John Neuffer, an analyst with Tokyo think-tank Mitsui Marine Research Institute, who started the cold pizza comparison, says Obuchi’s administration is ``warming up.″

``He’s clearly very clever and good at consensus-building,″ Neuffer said. ``He imposed a degree of political stability on Japan.″

Even his popularity is on the rise.

Obuchi was getting 21 percent support ratings in September, but this month reached 36 percent in an Asahi newspaper poll _ the highest yet for Obuchi.

``Mr. Obuchi is doing better than we expected,″ said Hanae Furukawa, a 66-year-old hospital worker. ``He’s a good choice, the safest choice for Japan.″

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