Japan's ruling elders show new fear in scandal, issuing 'gag rule' to party

November 29, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Japan's governing party has turned its gun against some of its own elected officials, apparently out of mounting fear that mushrooming scandals might break the grip on power it has held since 1955.

The party's old-line power brokers have issued an edict many younger members describe as a "gag rule," stripped a junior parliamentarian of a committee membership after he defiantly spoke on television without notifying the elders, and passed informal word that retribution awaits those who fail to push the official version of the latest scandal.

The steps, unprecedented even for the faction-ridden Liberal Democratic Party, show the political elders of the world's No. 2 economic power to be far more shaken than had been believed amid the fast unraveling of the LDP's position.

Not helping is the testimony of a former party kingmaker, recently disgraced, in an inquiry about gangster ties to the party. Shin Kanemaru reportedly said he was too drunk at a key meeting to remember if the then-prime minister knew of the links.

The LDP's deepening travail ensures that when President-elect Bill Clinton meets Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, head of the government Mr. Clinton has called the United States' "most important" diplomatic partner, he will be doing business with a political cripple.

It also has repeatedly delayed approval of an $88-billion special budget intended to jump-start this country's flagging economy and contribute to world economic recovery.

Shokei Arai, an LDP member of the Diet, Japan's parliament, felt the elders' wrath Friday.

Thursday, he appeared on television and held up a five-point letter from Tamisuke Watanuki, the party's secretary-general, warning him to toe the party line in any public statements. "This is the kind of stuff the Communists do, not my party," Mr. Arai said.

Friday, he was stripped of his committee membership. Party officials said it was because Mr. Arai had failed to attend a committee session. No one could recall any other recent case of a committeeman's losing his seat for missing a meeting.

For three months, Prime Minister Miyazawa's party has torn itself apart over prosecutors' allegations that top power brokers have dealt with yakuza mobsters.

It has been under relentless attack by usually toothless opposition parties and dropping like a rock in public opinion polls. The latest polls show fewer than one Japanese in five supporting the party and an unheard-of two out of three saying Mr. Miyazawa's Cabinet is doing a "poor" job.

Noboru Takeshita, a former prime minister who until last summer was one of the two most powerful politicians in Japan, has become a symbol of the distress.

Thursday, he went under oath before the lower house of the Diet to fight for what remains of a rapidly evanescing political career.

He denied that he had known anything about a 1987 deal that allegedly brought in yakuza mobsters to squelch a tiny right-wing party's loudspeaker campaign against him at the time he was about to become prime minister.

His testimony put in place the final key pieces of the LDP's newest fall-back position on the scandal.

The blame is all to fall on Mr. Kanemaru, who until last summer shared with Mr. Takeshita the back-room power. Mr. Kanemaru has yet to admit that he was the one who called in the yakuza, but he resigned from the Diet last month saying, "There was only one bad guy, and it was me."

After being questioned by a handful of legislators in his hospital room yesterday, Mr. Kanemaru was quoted by one of them as saying that he had at least four whiskeys at an October 1987 meeting with Mr. Takeshita and others discussing the yakuza campaign and therefore couldn't remember what happened.

How long Mr. Takeshita can be protected remains to be seen. In 1989, he resigned as prime minister to "take responsibility for" an unrelated scandal in which he had denied any role for a half-year.

Mr. Miyazawa resigned as finance minister in that scandal after repeatedly changing the basics of his story. It was Mr. Takeshita's and Mr. Kanemaru's joint blessing that brought him back from disgrace and made him prime minister a year ago.

Members of Mr. Watanuki's staff acknowledged Friday afternoon that the secretary-general had distributed a letter Wednesday instructing LDP Diet members to inform the party headquarters whenever they scheduled public statements or appearances.

Junior LDP Dietmen said the order amounted to a "gag rule."

LDP officials insisted that similar instructions were often issued.

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