U.S. bond with Japan elastic after party's fall Walls crumbling, but so is control

June 20, 1993|By David E. Sanger | David E. Sanger,New York Times News Service

TOKYO -- For the better part of four decades America has held tight to the view that the unshakable dominance of a single, conservative party in Japan was essential to Washington's most critical alliance in the Pacific, first as a bulwark against communism, and second as a platform for one of the world's most remarkable economic success stories.

But as the party grew bloated with power, and the endless payoffs and influence-peddling became an international embarrassment for Japan, U.S. officials increasingly found themselves forced to avert their eyes from the system's rotting core.

Though Washington was loath to criticize the decay of Japanese democracy publicly, the corrupt bonds between politicians and business became an integral part of the often invisible barriers that make it so frustrating for foreigners to break into the Japanese market.

So yesterday, as the country's governing party continued to spin apart in the fractious generational battle that brought down the government on Friday night, U.S. and Japanese officials alike struggled with the question few are ready to answer:

Will the uneasy relations between the two nations be better or worse off if the aging leaders who built Japan's postwar alliance with the United States finally lose power?

For years, critics of the one-party domination of Japan's political system have argued that only when a centrist alternative emerges will Japan begin to respond to the needs of consumers rather than manufacturers.

That in turn could pry open the country's markets in ways that legions of trade negotiators could never accomplish.

But a more contentious political system may also be one that the United States has a more difficult time handling. For four decades Washington has been able to go to the governing party to solve its problems, and in every area except trade it has almost always obtained results.

That era may be about to end.

Dramatic changes

By yesterday afternoon, it seemed that the end could come very soon. After the rebellion within the party that led to a vote of no confidence against the government of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, the Cabinet declared that an election would be held on July 18.

By some counts, nearly a quarter of the members of parliament who make up the Liberal Democratic Party's 38-year-old majority in the lower house are preparing to bolt from the party.

Ten announced yesterday that they were breaking away, and the leaders of the group that ousted Mr. Miyazawa are expected to announce the formation of a new, competing conservative party on Wednesday.

Yesterday, they received considerable encouragement. "Now is the time to make good use of ballots to put an end to the L.D.P.'s one-party rule," the Asahi Shimbun, a major daily, argued in an editorial.

In private, leaders of the old guard surrounding Mr. Miyazawa conceded that it would be virtually impossible to hold on to the majority it has commanded in the lower house of parliament since 1955. That was before 40 percent of Japan's population -- now 123 million people -- were born.

"It is doubtful that there are enough votes for anyone to decisively take power away from the LDP," said Yasunori Sone, a professor of political science at Keio University, a leading training ground for politicians. "But there certainly are enough to cripple it, forcing a coalition. It could take years before the new lines of power are really established."

The early date set for the election means that the paralyzed caretaker government will be in the midst of a desperate campaign -- with candidates' sound trucks blaring through the streets of Tokyo -- by the time President Clinton and the leaders of the six other major industrial nations arrive here in three weeks for their summit meeting.

Kingly corruption

But the leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party felt they had no choice but to hold the election as soon as possible. If they waited even a week more, election day would take place just after the start of a criminal trial against Shin Kanemaru, the power broker who until last year epitomized the party's awesome power, appointing and dismissing prime ministers at will and receiving millions of dollars in illicit payments.

Mr. Kanemaru is accused of evading taxes on tens of millions of dollars found in his home and offices this year, including several hundred pounds of gold bars kept in an aging safe.

Mr. Kanemaru's hoard of gold exemplifies the United States' dilemma in dealing with Japan's leaders. He often described himself as America's close friend and was treated that way: When he visited Washington last year, just before scandal erupted around him, President George Bush invited him to the family quarters of the White House for coffee.

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