Corruption in a Blocked Society

WILLIAM PFAFF

March 13, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Paris.--- There is a crucial difference between the politico-financial scandals now devastating the political classes of Italy and Japan. That in Italy is cathartic, leading toward a reform of public life. That in Japan is demoralizing because there is no evident solution.

The sources of scandal and corruption are much the same in both countries. Japan and Italy both have been governed since the war by conservative parties or coalitions, essentially

unchallenged and unchanging over the years. In both cases the governing party structure, or structures, became increasingly entangled with the commercial and financial enterprises of the country, which paid the politicians to protect and advance their own interests.

In Italy this ostensibly began in the clandestine financing of the governing parties but turned into the corruption of individual politicians. This occurred in a society historically suspicious of power and government. Italians have always relied on family and friends for security and advancement, and regarded the institutions of state with hostility. This is a legacy of the centuries of disunity, extreme partisanship, and foreign occupation or control of the Italian states, producing in contemporary Italy that lack of civil or civic responsibility, and a cynicism about government, which invited the abuses that have followed.

What is happening now reveals an explosive reversal in that situation, as public opinion massively sustains the alliance of investigating magistrates and journalists who are revealing the all but universally pervasive corruption of Italian public life. Public opinion has just blocked the government's efforts to avert the country's paralysis through a partial amnesty and decriminalization of corrupt party financing.

There are, however, reform parties and movements ready to take over responsibility for the country. A referendum on reform of the electoral system is set for next month, and new elections will follow. Italy faces a chaotic period but one from which it is reasonable to expect an ultimately constructive outcome.

This is not true for Japan. Japan is a society with an intensely corporate sense of itself, prizing unity and cooperation, national harmony, seeing Japan itself as a kind of extended family. Enterprise and state always have been interlinked. The great financial-industrial combinations of the present day, with their intimate involvement with the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Treasury, are simply new versions of the zaibatsu that dominated the economic life of prewar Japan. These in turn had their origins in state-favored family alliances of the post-Meiji Restoration period in the late 19th century.

In Japan's circumstances political opposition tends to be perceived as a form of dissonance, hostile to the desired national harmony. Opposition parties have thus never fared well, and in postwar Japan have never become a serious force. They have never remotely resembled a credible alternative to government by the Liberal Democratic Party -- which now has been uninterruptedly in power for the past 37 years.

Where then does Japan turn, when that party is revealed as corrupt to an extent that approaches a fantasy of corruption?

The most important political figure in the country, 78-year-old Shin Kanemaru, the Liberal Democratic leader who for years has from behind the scenes chosen the prime minister and government, was found last Tuesday to possess in his home and offices as much as $60 million in cash and bearer bonds, as well as hundreds of pounds of gold bars.

This was the stunning culmination, if scarcely the end, to a series of politico-financial scandals involving leading Liberal Democrats over the past few years. These nonetheless have failed to bring down the government, or even seriously shake the party. The prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, has said of Mr. Kanemaru's arrest only that it is ''quite regrettable.''

There simply is no alternative to the Liberal Democrats. The opposition parties are marginal, heavily ideologized, irrelevant. Japan is institutionally a democracy, but functionally a non-democracy. In the present age of internationalized politics, economics and communications, and with the transformation in social expectations as well as prosperity that has taken place inside the country, that condition is unlikely to endure.

There was a scandal last year when an officer-intellectual in the ,, Japanese defense force published an article considering the possibility of a military coup. A coup does not seem a very serious prospect, given the low standing of the Japanese military since the war, but publication of that article was nonetheless a significant event.

Japan today is truly at an impasse. Its immediate stability is unshaken, but an eventual radical solution cannot be ruled out.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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