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Japan’s Prime Minister Bows Out

January 5, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, dogged by a faltering economy and a disillusioned electorate, announced his resignation today, saying he had done his best in difficult times.

In a surprise move, Murayama and his entire Cabinet said they would formally step down Monday, setting the stage for a shift of power to Ryutaro Hashimoto, Japan’s combative trade minister.

``Despite a series of unexpected problems, I did my best,″ said Murayama, 71, who took the top job 18 months ago as a political neophyte. ``I’ve used up everything I have.″

He and his ministers were to stay on as caretakers until a new government can be formed. The new prime minister, expected to be Hashimoto, was to be elected at a special parliamentary session, which ministers said could take place as early as Thursday.

That means President Clinton will be meeting a new Japanese leader when he pays a state visit scheduled for April 16-18.

The bushy-browed Murayama took office in June 1994 at the head of a coalition cobbled together from liberal and conservative parties. His unlikely government proved unexpectedly durable.

With simmering discontent over the stagnant economy and finance industry scandals, however, the prime minister’s popularity plummeted, and he was seen as a weak candidate to lead the coalition in new elections.

Murayama’s tenure was marked by some of Japan’s biggest disasters of recent years. The Kobe earthquake last January killed more than 6,000 people, and the nation was deeply shaken by a doomsday cult’s nerve gas attack in March on the Tokyo subway, which killed 12 people and sickened more than 5,500.

The prime minister also presided over a year of painful remembrances of World War II, which ended with Japan’s surrender 50 years ago in August. He made among the most forthright apologies yet by a Japanese leader for past militarism, but was unable to win lawmakers’ backing for the statement.

Murayama had said previously he would like to resign, but that he feared weakening his coalition. The timing of today’s announcement caught even close associates by surprise.

``It was out of the blue, sudden,″ said chief government spokesman Koken Nosaka.

Murayama called a meeting today with the leaders of the three parties in his ruling coalition and told them he wanted out.

The coalition’s future was unclear. Reports quoted Murayama as urging party leaders to keep the alliance together. Ministers indicated they would try to follow through, but acknowledged they had policy differences to address.

Murayama came to power following some of Japan’s greatest political turbulence since World War II. The conservative Liberal Democrats had governed for more than four decades, but in 1993 voters angry over corruption deprived them of power.

With that, political newcomer Morihiro Hosokawa became prime minister, heading Japan’s first coalition government. His government pushed through political reforms, but he himself was brought down by scandal.

The next prime minister, Tsutomu Hata, took office in April 1994 and lasted only two months.

The rapid succession of prime ministers, confusing realignments and continued reliance on back room deal-making have caused growing disillusionment with the Japanese political system.

A poll in the national Mainichi newspaper this week found that 87 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the political system _ the highest level since the poll began in 1972.

Murayama’s likely successor is Hashimoto, 58, best known for his tough stance against American demands in talks last summer to increase access to Japan’s auto market. At today’s Cabinet meeting, ministers from Hashimoto’s Liberal Democratic Party made it clear they expected him to be named as the country’s next prime minister.

Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, though, called for early elections.

``I don’t think it’s right for the three ruling parties to shuffle the prime ministership among themselves this way and that without having an election,″ Ozawa said, adding that Hashimoto ``should seek the judgment of the people as quickly as possible.″

Reaction was relatively muted on Japanese financial markets. If anything, the resignation of a prime minister seen as unable to tame the 4-year-old recession provided some encouragement.

``Market players think Murayama hasn’t done much of anything,″ said Masao Mizuno of Marusan Securities. ``I’m not sure if Hashimoto would make that much difference, but he’d certainly be better than Murayama.″

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