Political Upheaval in Japan

November 16, 1992

On the surface it looks just like the sort of political squabble most democratic countries have from time to time. A politician gets caught handling dirty money, gets off with a slap on the wrist, precipitates a public uproar and a factional fight within his party and is forced to resign. But the drama being played out in Japan has some of the earmarks of a political earthquake.

Political corruption is nothing new in the peculiar kind of democracy that has existed less than half a century in the ancient kingdom. What is new is a huge public outcry because the political system is being poisoned by corrupt money.

Scandals have roiled the political waters in Japan before, with little long-term effect. A prime minister was arrested in 1976 in a bribery scandal involving purchase of Lockheed aircraft. One of the politicians convicted in that case is a leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party today. Three years ago another scandal rocked the LDP when it was revealed many politicians had received stock in a major corporation in return for favors. Five of the politicians tarnished in that scandal sit in the cabinet today. Little more than a year ago Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu was unceremoniously dumped by his party for trying to strengthen the toothless law that purports to regulate political contributions.

The same pattern of corruption without consequence was supposed to continue this fall when it was disclosed that Shin Kanemaru, the kingmaker of the LDP who has personally picked Japan's last four prime ministers, had taken a $4 million political contribution from a trucking company with close ties to organized crime. It had also been reported that he sought and received a dinner invitation from the chieftain of one of Japan's largest gangland empires. Japanese prosecutors, who haul ordinary citizens in for questioning on minor offenses, let Mr. Kanemaru off with a signed statement and a $1,650 fine. That was supposed to be sufficient. But this time the public erupted.

Petitions, hunger strikes, public demonstrations and rare outbursts of criticism by LDP rank and file forced Mr. Kanemaru to resign his seat in parliament and, effectively, his leadership of the party's dominant faction. This sort of public upheaval about political corruption has hardly any precedent in Japan. The political crisis is not over yet, and it is not certain that lasting reform will come of it. But the Japanese public, never before a factor in the ruling party's internal machinations, has forced its way into the LDP's councils.

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