The 'big boys' take a beating in fed-up Japan

November 01, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- "It's time for the big boys to come back."

With those words as his campaign slogan a year ago, diminutive Kiichi Miyazawa won the backing of burly Shin Kanemaru, then the biggest boy of all in Japanese politics. They had not always been friends, but together they swept aside the polka-dot neckties and "Mr. Clean" prime ministership of the youthful Toshiki Kaifu.

Mr. Kaifu was a naive goody-goody and wasn't getting the job done, Mr. Miyazawa argued. In any case, he had completed his assignment -- to provide a clean enough front to get the governing Liberal Democratic Party through some tough elections after it was rocked by a series of scandals.

Mr. Miyazawa and "the big boys" have been back for a year now.

It has not been a year to make a big boy proud. Mr. Miyazawa

now has the second-lowest public approval ratings of any prime minister since the end of the U.S. occupation 40 years ago. But he still has his job and most of his reputation.

Mr. Kanemaru has neither.

The country's most powerful politician resigned from the Diet, Japan's parliament, in an attempt to head off further investigation into a multimillion-dollar scandal that has confirmed what millions of Japanese always assumed but couldn't prove -- that the LDP has ties to yakuza gangsters.

"There was only one bad guy, and it was me," Mr. Kanemaru said as he resigned, trying to silence demands that he and other figures in the scandal be forced to testify under oath.

While Japanese cope with the worst economic slowdown since World War II, Cabinet members defensively promise that the economy will not be ignored while the LDP is consumed by its own back-to-the-wall struggle to assure that Mr. Kanemaru did not resign in vain.

For two weeks, the only party that has ever governed postwar Japan has conducted that struggle as a two-ring circus.

In Ring One, the surviving leaders of Mr. Kanemaru's own faction, the LDP's biggest, have quarreled among themselves over who should get Mr. Kanemaru's job as faction leader.

In Ring Two, the broader LDP leadership daily goes up against opposition parties that remain united in one central demand so far.

That is to put Mr. Kanemaru, his longtime sidekick former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, and other principals under oath for questioning about the LDP's connection with yakuza, Japan's underworld.

What the opposition demands is details of yakuza's role in clearing the way for Mr. Takeshita to become prime minister in 1987. Mr. Kanemaru is said to have met with a gangland boss to silence right-wing sound trucks that were loudly protesting a Takeshita Cabinet.

After two decades of relentlessly spiraling LDP scandals, everybody in Japan thinks he or she knows what is wrong: money.

At every wedding or funeral in his district, the Japanese candidate must hand over an envelope containing no less than $80 in cash if he is to have any hope of getting the family members' votes.

The lifeblood of politics Kanemaru-style is the gigantic cash contribution, like the $4 million injection from a mob-related trucking company that led to his downfall. The heartbeat is passing that money along in wholesale parcels to members of his faction for their political campaigns.

Each new scandal brings new LDP promises of "political reforms" that will banish this money albatross. Mr. Miyazawa is at least the ninth prime minister to offer that response to a scandal. No such reform has yet been enacted.

But after two decades of scandal, recent polls show millions of Japanese believing their country's political rot is too deep to be cured by new electoral laws.

The voters are demanding something truly radical. By majorities ranging from 70 to 90 percent, they want Mr. Kanemaru and Mr. Takeshita put under oath and grilled publicly.

That could be the beginning of the end of the LDP's long reliance on exorcism, rather than investigation, to get it from one scandal to the next.

The key steps in the LDP exorcism ritual are the reform promise and the public resignation of at least one key figure. That self-sacrifice has little to do with modern democracy and everything to do with concepts of honor that grow out of Japan's ancient rituals of self-embowelment by shamed samurai warriors.

What the LDP has long managed to evade by this feudal ritual is the more modern concept that the public has a right to know the scope and details of each scandal.

Whether the combined weight of public and opposition parties' demands can shame the LDP into putting two of its own leaders under oath will not be known until the new Diet session is well into November.

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