Rejuvenating Japan Young, poor may beat money-tainted elders in election

July 16, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

SHIKI, Japan -- Kiyoshi Ueda is a four-time loser trying to get himself elected to the Japanese parliament. But in the political upheaval leading to this Sunday's election, he looks like a sure winner.

And that's scary to his backers. Not because they fear him winning, but because his victory is being treated as such a foregone conclusion they fear people won't bother voting for him.

"We're afraid some voters may assume he's got it won and either stay home or even think they can afford to vote for some other good candidate," said Kiwako Tanaka, an Ueda supporter.

In Japan's unique multiseat districts, each voter can vote for only one candidate. Overconfidence that leads supporters to "vote for some other good candidate" is every politician's nightmare.

For the fifth time, Ms. Tanaka, a City Council member in this town of 660,000, an hour's train commute north of Tokyo, is backing Mr. Ueda, a self-styled "reform" candidate for the powerful lower house of the Diet, Japan's parliament.

All three of Japan's biggest newspapers list Mr. Ueda as a certainty to be one of the four elected Sunday to represent the 5th District of Saitama prefecture in the next Diet. Two pick him to head the field of 10 candidates.

He has the backing of the Shinseito, or Japan Renewal Party. The JRP was founded only last month by former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata, who could become prime minister if opposition forces do well enough Sunday to put together a coalition government.

Mr. Ueda's sudden ascendancy to front-runner comes after 12 years as a perennial loser, viewed by many voters as a do-gooder who could never cope with Tokyo's back-room power brokers. His transformation in the public eye tells much about the topsy-turvy world Japanese politics has become this year.

Cash crunch

It is first and foremost a story of radical changes in the role money is playing in this election.

For 38 years, ever-deepening corruption has been the worst-kept secret of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has held a hammerlock on Japan's national politics ever since it was founded in 1955.

Indeed, a knack for carrying corruption right down to the grass roots has been a key to the LDP's consistency at the polls. Envelopes containing anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 yen ($27 to $90) pass from politicians to voters year-round at any opportunity, from weddings and funerals to fruit-stand openings and national holidays.

With millions of voters themselves on the take and forming a secure base for the pyramids of personal obligation the governing party is built on, nobody worried much that the LDP would lose an election over one more scandal.

But this year, those same hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign cash, once the reliable cement of the LDP's political pyramids, are suddenly themselves a liability.

How big a liability was graphically visible this week in visits to candidates' campaign headquarters all over this district.

Candidates of Japan's flock of newly founded conservative but "reformist" parties, including Mr. Ueda, prominently display cash-flow charts -- accounts of their contributions and expenditures -- on big boards at the entrances to their offices.

No such charts decorate LDP campaign offices. It's hard just to get a conversation started about money.

"We turn in expense accounts to the head office, and they give us reimbursements," was as much as Niheiji Ohno was willing to say at the headquarters of Kunio Hosaka, one of two LDP candidates. Mr. Ohno is the office director.

In past years, the LDP has easily elected two Diet members from nTC this district. This year, Mr. Hosaka, the second of two LDP hopefuls, is considered a long shot.

For candidates like Mr. Hosaka, money is a problem not only because the LDP's riches have become an embarrassment but also because the LDP doesn't have as much as it once did. His campaign workers acknowledge that they don't have as much as they are used to spreading around.

That's not to say the money has dried up completely. But for the first time anyone can remember, sources that have loyally ponied up tens and hundreds of millions of dollars almost on demand have announced or leaked word that they are setting limits, even cutting back from past levels.

The Japan Bankers Association leaked word to Japanese reporters that its member banks would provide "only" $92 million of the $229 million in campaign loans the LDP finance office had requested.

Gaishi Hiraiwa, head of Keidanren, Japan's most powerful business lobby, said his association's members would still give only to the LDP this year but would reject requests for big increases in the $122 million they gave in the 1990 election. The Japan Association of Corporate Executives announced that it, too, planned to hold the line at the $119 million it gave in the last election.

Worse yet, once-reliable big-money donors have begun going to the media to name names of LDP Cabinet ministers who have tried to wring campaign money out of businesses they regulate.

Embarrassing details

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