May 13, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 16

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    [president sonnenschein and keizo obuchi] by jason smith
    President Sonnenschein introduces Keizo Obuchi, Prime Minister of Japan, at a private meeting between the Japanese statesman and nearly 50 University students. Arranged by the University’s student-run organization the Political Union, Obuchi’s visit to campus was one stop during his visit to Chicago. Obuchi answered students’ questions after he gave a brief speech.

    Obuchi first Japanese prime minister to visit University’s campus

    By Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    The international press most likely envied University students earlier this month when Prime Minister of Japan Keizo Obuchi entertained students’ questions about his economic and defense initiatives.

    A guest of the University’s student-run Political Union, Obuchi is the first prime minister of Japan to visit Chicago’s campus. He shared a few personal stories and took questions from the group of 48 University students who gathered at Robie House.

    The prime minister said Robie House was familiar to him because his official residence is based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Palace hotel built in Tokyo in 1923. Wright’s design withstood earthquakes and wars for more than 40 years before it was moved to the Museum Meiji-Village, a Japanese Williamsburg.

    Obuchi’s visit came after the acceptance of a long-standing invitation from Political Union co-founders Jacob Studley and Michael Rossman. The two students said they originally sent an invitation more than two years ago when Hashimoto, Japan’s previous prime minister, was in office. Rossman said they stepped up their calls and letters inviting Obuchi this fall. “Finally, they actually contacted us and asked if we could work something out,” said Studley. “We said, ‘Yes, absolutely!’”

    Obuchi adopted similar tactics in his youth. While touring the world after completing his studies in Tokyo in 1963, Obuchi initiated a meeting with Robert F. Kennedy in Washington, D.C. Staying in the YMCA for $1.50 a night, the 25-year-old Obuchi sent a letter to the Department of Justice requesting a meeting, stating how impressed he had been by a speech Kennedy delivered at his alma mater the year before. One week later, Kennedy granted a meeting.

    “So I hope you will give me a call if you are in Tokyo and I am in office,” Obuchi told the students, who had better hurry with their calling cards. Obuchi noted the short length of the prime minister’s term in Japan––two years––and the number of prime ministers Japan has elected––84 in 100 years of parliamentary procedure. Obuchi added he has not yet indicated his intent for re-election.

    Obuchi majored in English at Waseda University in Tokyo, originally planning to become a Shakespearean scholar. However, he decided to become a politician after his father’s sudden death prevented the older Obuchi from serving his term in the House of Representatives. Obuchi said, “I wanted to carry on my father’s work and repay my gratitude to the voters who elected him.” Obuchi is now in his 12th consecutive term in office.

    In response to a question about Japan’s military, Obuchi said, “Japan is trying very hard to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, but there is not yet a consensus in Japan about using military force to resolve international conflict.” Although Japan is sensitive to taking an active role militarily in any conflict––in large part due to criticisms from Asian countries that were invaded by Japan during World War II––Obuchi said he could see Japan providing military support to a United Nations standing force. With regards to Japan’s struggling economy, Obuchi said unemployment would get worse before it gets better––unemployment is at a record high, 4.8 percent, since WWII. The prime minister said his party is initiating job retraining programs for the Japanese and is reviewing management structures in corporations. “There is a heated debate over management styles––there is the American style of accountability and the Japanese family style,” said Obuchi. “I am wondering if there is a third way that is better, and we are looking into that––and I certainly wouldn’t mind if the University of Chicago could research this as well.”

    Students from the Political Union said they were surprised by Obuchi’s candor. “He was very straightforward,” said Rossman.

    “If our president said unemployment would go up and people would lose their jobs, he would be harshly criticized and most likely be gone in the next election.”

    The prime minister concluded his visit by taking a picture with University students before heading off to Wrigley Field, where he threw the opening pitch to Sammy Sosa.