TOKYO, Jan. 11 -- Japanese politics appears destined for a big change in style -- but not necessarily in substance -- with Thursday's election of Ryutaro Hashimoto as prime minister. As is the case with many Japanese leaders, politics runs in the blood of the 58-year-old veteran lawmaker. His father was in politics and his brother is mayor of Kochi City on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands. Hashimoto's predecessor, Tomiichi Murayama, 71, developed a reputation as genial but ineffective and was widely criticized for being fuzzy on key issues. On the other hand, as Minister of Industry and Trade immediately before taking over the top slot in Japan, Hashimoto earned a reputation as a no-holds-barred negotiator, skilled in the art of brinkmanship especially in last year's contentious auto trade talks with the United States. Still, he has also faced accusations of being a closet nationalist, a charge unlikely to heap favor in Asia. After 2 years in the backwings under socialist Murayama, Hashimoto has led the once-mighty Liberal Democratic Party back to center stage in Japanese politics. 'The difference is his policy will be easier to understand because Hashimoto is more outspoken and articulate,' said Akio Watanabe, professor of politics at Tokyo's Aoyama Gakuin University. After graduating from Keio University, a top private university, Hashimoto joined a textile company for about three years. When he was only 26 his father died, and he won his father's seat in the lower house of the Diet, Japan's parliament, representing Okayama, an area between Kobe and Hiroshima in west central Japan.
The new prime minister has a reputation for being as combative in the ancient art of kendo, Japanese fencing, as he was in facing his lifetime adversary, U.S. Chief Trade Representative Mickey Kantor. He practiced kendo on the roof of the trade ministry. 'Hashimoto has gained his popularity as the tough guy who gave Japan the perceived upper hand in last year's grueling talks to squeeze an agreement on motor industry trading between Japan and the United States, ' said Roger Buckley, a political analyst at International Christian University in Tokyo. A chain smoker of Cherry brand cigarettes, Hashimoto also has a wry sense of humor and told UPI in an interview late in 1995, 'Yes, I did say that coming face to face with Mickey Kantor is worse than facing my wife when she is angry at me coming home with too much liquor inside me. ' At the age of 58 he appears youthful for a Japanese prime minister. Murayama was 71 and presented a grandfatherly image, while Hashimoto is known as a man always in a hurry who seeks the last word. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale told public television viewers from his home in Minnesota, 'While he's part of a new generation, he is also part of a group of leaders who have been around for a long time... He's been in politics for more than 30 years. Hashimoto has held key Cabinet portfolios, including those in charge of health and welfare, transport, finance as well as trade and industry. The new prime minister and his wife Kumiko have five children. Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which is generally aligned to the left of the conservative LDP, said the new prime minister has a reputation for being logical and a good listener, but also said his attitude is 'arrogant.' 'He is very logical and sharp. He does not have to explain things over and over,' a trade and industry ministry employee who worked with Hashimoto told the newspaper. The Mainichi Shimbun newspaper described Hashimoto as a lone wolf and said he was dislked by the media. It said he was also known for antagonizing close aides with to his blunt attitude. Masaya Ito, a political analyst told Mainichi, 'Hashimoto is more like a workman, not a politician... He has little sense for other people's feelings.' Some Asian countries like China worry Hashimoto harbors nationalistic attitudes. Until only recently he was head of a war bereaved association that forced Japan to water down an apology for Japan's World War II behavior in Asia, a move that was led by Murayama.