Politicians began jockeying on Monday for the chance to play chief surgeon to the world's second-largest economy after Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto resigned, saying he was responsible for his party's disastrous finish in parliamentary elections on Sunday.
Hashimoto's resignation left a political vacuum at the economic heart of Asia, sending stocks and currencies reeling across the continent and triggering fears that another chapter could be beginning in the Asian financial crisis.The sudden and unexpected nature of the political upheaval here was underscored when Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko of Russia arrived in Tokyo on Monday morning for a visit with Hashimoto. It was the first such visit ever by a Russian prime minister, and it seemed sensible enough when Kiri-yen-ko left Moscow, but by the time he stepped off the plane in Tokyo, Hashimoto was history.
Hashimoto also had to cancel plans for a state visit to the United States later this month.
A new prime minister is expected to be chosen in the next week and installed on about July 30, after intensive horse-trading in the governing Liberal Democratic Party.
But the election has left some wondering whether Japan is on a transition toward a two-party system that will change the character not just of the party but also of the nation.
That is subject to debate, but there seems little doubt that the election has already left the party with a reduced ability to govern and with a handful of prime ministerial candidates who represent precisely the old school of politics that the voters decisively rejected on Sunday.
"Hashimoto is one of the best that the LDP can produce," said Takashi Inoguchi, a political scientist at Tokyo University. "Unless someone terribly fresh and surprising comes along, it's hard to see how the next prime minister can handle the issues head on and fast.
"To handle the problems efficiently, you need a fresh, strong and decisive leader, but they are very hard to find. So we'll have to muddle through with less than competent political leadership."
The selection of a new prime minister for Japan is of intense interest around Asia, for Japan is seen as the key to overcoming the region's crisis. Its economy is eight times as big as China's and twice as big as all the rest of Asia's put together, and it has contributed far more to bail-out packages than the United States or any other country.
Handicapping the race is a bit difficult, however, for the last thing candidates do is express interest in the job. Instead, if one is asked if one is interested, it is deemed polite to assume a pained expression and rush away without answering - which is precisely what the front-runner, Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi, did on Monday when reporters raised the issue outside his home.
While in the United States the metaphor for becoming a candidate is to toss one's hat into the ring, in Japanese it is to be an omikoshi, a portable shrine. Just as throngs of revelers together carry an omikoshi on their shoulders in exuberant street festivals, so the candidate is supposed to be carried by supporters into the fray.
In reality, of course, the candidates are a bit different from other omikoshi: they desperately scramble for shoulders to carry them.
Obuchi, 61, is the leading candidate largely because he heads the largest faction in the party and is respected for his affability. But critics say that while he may not have enemies, he also has no policies or initiatives, and it would be difficult to find someone less charismatic.
Another contender is Seiroku Kajiyama, 72, a much more outspoken and controversial party elder. He has some support, because he has consistently urged a more aggressive posture in tackling Japan's economic problems, but he has also made missteps.
A possible compromise is Kiichi Miyazawa, 78, a former prime minister who is respected for his command of financial affairs.