JAPAN'S LEADER FACES A MAKE-OR-BREAK YEAR

JAPAN'S LEADER FACES A MAKE-OR-BREAK YEAR

This is a make-or-break, all-or-nothing year for Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

He has the challenge and opportunity to become the best-known Japanese leader in a decade.All he needs to do is meet a few economic, international and political challenges.

He has to lead a recovery by the sputtering Japanese economy, which is still the world's second largest; steer a precarious three-party coalition through heavy seas to victory in a general election that must be held by October; and host a summit meeting of the Group of 8 leading nations in July that has enough divisive issues to draw protesters that would make Seattle's recent World Trade Organization uproar seem like a high-school pep rally in comparison.

''If Obuchi can pull it off, he deserves a medal,'' said a Western diplomat now retired in Kamakura.

The diplomat, who has watched Japanese political wars since the days of Prime Minister Nobosuke Kishi, added, ''Obuchi will get more opposition than expected from two sources. One is apathy; the other is Yukio Hatoyama's Democratic Party, which has a very clean image.''

Obuchi has announced a rare public relations wrinkle to help boost morale. The government will issue a 2,000-yen bill to mark the start of the new millennium.

The bank note, the first to be issued in 41 years, will include the design of Shureimon, the gate of Shuri Castle in Okinawa Prefecture, the venue for the G-8 summit.

If Obuchi, 62, fails, he will be consigned to political oblivion.

Such a simplistic view, as held by many foreigners, disregards the nuances, the swerves of the boys in the back room, the factional gymnastics and such key elements as where candidates' relatives are dispersed. But it does take into account that Obuchi's ruling Liberal Democratic Party is having trouble attracting urban voters.

The unreliability of its coalition partners - the Liberal Party, with its mercurial leader Ichiro Ozawa, and the New Komeito - only serves to complicate matters for the once-mighty LDP.

Even if Obuchi avoids an election this spring, he will face a raft of international vexations in coping with the G-8 summit.

Staging the event in remote Okinawa was supposed to be a master stroke of public relations. But the flip side is the potential difficulty handling crowds of protesters seeking to influence delegates from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States.

Japan, as the only Asian member, has pledged to look out for the interests of Asian nations.

Japanese officials are said to want to get the new WTO trade round under way before the Okinawa summit.

There is concern that the summit could disintegrate into a scene similar to the anti-free-trade demonstrations that helped lead to the collapse of the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle early in December.

Popular protests could be held over the issue of U.S. military bases in Okinawa. The residents of the island want a reduction of the U.S. military facilities there.

A Kyodo News Service analysis said, ''On China, Obuchi apparently has yet to make up his mind over German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's proposal to invite Chinese President Jiang Zemin to the Okinawa summit.''

Some Japanese officials seem to think inviting Jiang would help ease tensions between China and Taiwan.

Others disagree. They say a dispute could be rekindled between Beijing and Tokyo over the Japanese defense guidelines that allow Japan's Self-Defense Forces to provide logistics support to the U.S. military during emergencies.

Japan is concerned that China may make some kind of military move prior to Taiwan's March 18 presidential elections.

Russia and North Korea are two other problem areas for Japan for which the illusion of change and improvement are greater than the reality.