Patriarch of Japan's scandal-ridden ruling party quits under fire

October 14, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Japan's most powerful politician resigned from Parliament today in the face of unprecedented public outrage over a scandal that has shaken the foundations of the country's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Shin Kanemaru, the 78-year-old LDP patriarch who made Kiichi Miyazawa prime minister last fall and who made Mr. Miyazawa's three predecessors heads of government and told them when to step down, appeared to be ending his five-decade political career rather than face further questions over his links to the yakuza, Japan's underworld.

His plan to resign, revealed to political intimates over the past two days, threw the world's No. 2 economic power into a political crisis with consequences no one was willing to calculate.

"No one can stop Mr. Kanemaru now -- he has made a decision, and it can't be helped," Ichiro Ozawa, deputy chairman of the LDP faction he heads, told TV interviewers last night.

Mr. Kanemaru made his announcement shortly after 2 p.m. Tokyo time at a meeting of the LDP parliamentary faction he headed until the scandal ended his career.

Resignation from Parliament does not necessarily mean the end of Mr. Kanemaru's influence.

But his departure ends a rare confrontation between the entrenched back-room machine politics that has ruled Japan for four decades and an energetic burst of grass-roots democracy.

For seven weeks, Mr. Kanemaru has been the object of a firestorm of petition drives, hunger strikes and other protests on a scale rarely seen in Japan.

There was widespread agreement yesterday that even if Mr. Kanemaru tries to cling to informal power after leaving office -- as disgraced political kingpins here often do -- he has been so debilitated by the scandal and the public outcry that he will leave behind a power vacuum far greater than those left by the departures of prime ministers whose rises and falls he engineered.

What enraged Japanese, as none of the country's incessant political money scandals has before, was Mr. Kanemaru's dealings with the mobster-related Tokyo subsidiary of a national trucking company that has given the scandal its name, Sagawa Kyubin.

Prosecutors said Mr. Kanemaru accepted an illegal $4 million political contribution from the subsidiary's mob-connected president and repeatedly begged the shady businessman to get him a meeting with a since-deceased yakuza boss.

News reports, never contradicted by Mr. Kanemaru, say those pleas led to at least one dinner with the gangster, in 1987. Mr. Kanemaru used the meeting to get yakuza help in silencing right-wing protesters, who were harassing his plan to make Noboru Takeshita prime minister, the news reports say.

It was the first time Japan has ever been forced to confront directly the governing party's darkest though perhaps worst-kept secret: the connections every Japanese feels sure the LDP has with the underworld.

But Mr. Kanemaru dug in his heels last month and refused to let prosecutors question him.

After a three-week standoff in which the he holed up at home, receiving scores of political visitors but no prosecutors, the prosecutors accepted a written statement. He paid a $1,600 fine for the $4 million contribution but never had to testify about meeting the late gangster, Susumu Ishii.

The slap on the wrist further fed the sense of indignation from the average Japanese who know they may be brought in and questioned for as little as a serious traffic offense.

Whether the resignation of the party's master money-raiser also will change the governing conservatives' ever-mounting dependence on immense sums of money no matter how tainted, or their much-discussed but little-investigated ties with gangsters, remains to be seen.

The LDP has a commanding majority in the more powerful of the Parliament's two houses and need not face an election until February 1994. Its leaders have long managed to shake off scandals and get back to corruption as usual, much abetted by the weakness and fragmentation of opposition parties that have never known power since World War II.

By last night, Mr. Kanemaru's decision had thrown the governing conservatives into chaos and touched off a virulent power struggle within the party's dominant faction.

Prime Minister Miyazawa, whose own faction in the LDP is far too small to keep anyone in power, appeared certain to come out of the crisis deeply undermined as the country's nominal political leader. At the same time, the crisis appeared to touch his principal rivals in ways that might force them to wait months or years before knocking him out of the premiership.

All day and into the night yesterday and Monday, black limousines with white lace curtains on their back windows rolled up to Mr. Kanemaru's big red-brick house in Tokyo's swanky Moto Azabu neighborhood. They brought cabinet ministers, former premiers and other LDP leaders.

Some said afterward they sought his advice and help as they groped for ways to keep the faction-ridden governing party together once he quits.

A few tried to talk him out of it. Former Prime Minister Takeshita tried at least three times.

But polls showed as many as 90 percent of the people demanded that he resign, including 70 percent in the district that elected him.

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