TOKYO -- Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu scored a lightning year-end victory over his governing party's political bosses yesterday by suddenly giving them a Cabinet reshuffling they had long demanded but by doing it on virtually his own terms.
Japanese newspapers credited Mr. Kaifu with swiftly turning a brewing new political-money scandal into an unexpected chance to resist mounting demands by party bosses that he restore to power old faces that had been dirtied by the Recruit stock-for-favors affair of the preceding two years.
He also retained the holders of the key policy and political positions -- the foreign and finance ministers and the party secretary-general -- thereby assuring a continuity that he insisted was essential in increasingly difficult economic and diplomatic times, especially in political and economic relations with the United States and Europe.
After weeks of saying he would delay any Cabinet reshuffling until next year, Mr. Kaifu suddenly reversed field, less than 48 hours after the indictment of a former Cabinet minister on charges of massive tax evasion in a stock-manipulation scheme.
The maneuver seemed to have vastly strengthened his chances of staying in office at least through next October, the end of his two-year term.
He thus extended a string of political survival feats that have repeatedly confounded predictions made when was called in as a "Mr. Clean" to head the Liberal Democratic party when it was rocked by the money and sex scandals that brought down his two predecessors.
Mr. Kaifu emerged with his third Cabinet line-up having:
* Retained Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama and Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, two top policy hands. He also kept on Ichiro Ozawa, 48, the party's secretary-general, a member of the biggest faction, headed by disgraced former Prime Minister Noburo Takeshita. Mr. Ozawa has become a leading candidate for prime minister, possibly succeeding Mr. Kaifu.
* Fought off attempts by powerful party faction leaders to force himto bring more than a half-dozen scandal-tainted old faces back to positions of power and honor.
* Rewarded a score of party workhorses not tainted by the scandals, thereby easing internal pressures within the party by giving the faction leaders all they dared to demand in the face of the mounting new scandal.
* Given a post to a woman, which he had been unable to do in forming his second Cabinet last February in the face of post-election pressure to reward stalwart campaigners. Akiko Sento, 48, a former TV personality who is now a member of the upper house, became director-general of the Science and Technology Agency. Mr. Kaifu's first Cabinet had two women, and he was believed to have been disappointed when he could get none into his second.
* Got rid of Justice Minister Seiroku Kajiyama, who outraged U.S. blacks in September by comparing prostitutes moving into a Tokyo neighborhood to changes in U.S. neighborhoods when blacks move in. Mr. Kajiyama repeated his apologies for the insults yesterday and said he felt "relieved" to be out of a job that had made him a center of international controversy.
Mr. Kaifu's popularity ratings have sagged below the 50 percent mark in recent months, due mainly to prolonged confusion in Japan's response to U.S. demands for help in responding to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
But they have remained well above those recorded by his predecessors during the Recruit scandal of 1988 and 1989.
Though he came to power from the obscure middle ranks of the party's smallest faction, his tenure in office also has been aided by his leading the party to an unexpectedly strong re-election victory last winter.
In addition, the rival factional powerhouses have shown little ability to agree on the sequence for the next three or four prime ministers, usually a pre-requisite to any move against an incumbent.
The reshuffle also removed Minister of International Trade and Industry Kabun Moto and Agriculture Minister Tomio Yamamoto. They had battled over a U.S. demand that Japan end its rice-import ban: Mr. Moto said Tokyo should yield to some degree but Mr. Yamamoto adamantly opposed the U.S. demand.
Their successors' views on the rice ban and other trade issues were not known.
The reshuffle had the side effect of removing two ministers who had fought a bitter political battle over Japan's rice-import ban.