Tokyo — A new name has appeared in Japan's prime ministerial sweepstakes, causing concern to front-runners Yasuhiro Nakasone and Toshio Komoto. It is that of Zenko Suzuki, a veteran Liberal Democratic legislator and close confidant of the late Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira. Mr. Suzuki is not as yet an avowed candidate, but he commands the support of the Ohira faction and could probably win that of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka as well.
Neither Mr. Nakasone nor Mr. Komoto are exactly household words in the West, although Mr. Nakasone may be somewhat better known because of his hawkish views on defense. As for Mr. Suzuki, it is a safe bet to say that few readers even of renowned newspapers such as the New York Times or Le Monde have ever come across his name.
This is because, of all aspects of Japanese society, politics is probably one of the least accessible to the Western world. Few Japanese politicians speak a foreign language well enough to communicate with their Western colleagues. Although Japan has the world's third-largest economy and has spun a formidable web of economic interdependence with countries as large as the United States or as remote as Chile or Zimbabwe, politics in Japan goes on almost independent of the vital international link and concern.
To some degree, this is true of most countries. In Japan, an island empire isolated from outside contacts until the mid-19th century, the paucity of interaction between domestic politics and international concerns may be more pronounced than elsewhere.
Today there is an intense leadership struggle going on within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that has ruled Japan for the past quarter century, yet few echoes reach the outside world. The struggle is for the succession to Mr. Ohira, who passed on June 12 in the midst of a general election campaign.
In the end, the struggle will be determined by the votes of Liberal Democratic legislators, just before the Diet (parliament) meets July 17, for the first time after the general election. The Liberal Democrats have a clear majority in both houses -- 286 seats in the 511- seat lower house and 135 in the 252-seat upper house.
The two leading factions -- followers of the late Mr. Ohira and of Mr. Tanaka -- are allies and, if they remain united, can out vote any other faction. Mr. Tanaka is currently on trial on charges of having accepted a 500 million- yen (nearly $2.5 million) bribe in the Lockheed affair. Yet he possesses decisive influence among his followers and within the LDP as a whole (from which he was forced to resign in 1976).
But Mr. Tanaka's strength is also his weakness. No politician likes to feel he has been steamrollered. If numerical strength is the ultimate weapon possessed by the Ohira and Tanaka factions, it behooves them all the more to speak softly and to seem amenable to the time-honored process of consensus-building being attempted by party elders.
The significance of Mr. Suzuki's "availability" (he refuses to say whether he will be a candidate until after Mr. Ohira's official funeral July 9) is this: It gives the temporarily leaderless Ohira faction a rallying point. By putting forward its own candidate, the faction can bargain as a united group with other potential candidates instead of dispersing its votes between Mr. Nakasone, Mr. Komoto and others.
Mr. Suzuki comes from a fishing background and first entered the Diet (parliament) as a Socialist in 1947. Two years later he shifted to the Liberal Party (which joined the Democrats To form the LDP in 1955), saying one must joing the majority party inorder to help one's home town.
He is popular among fellow legislators and is considered a politician's politician, unrivaled in the backstage, tearoom maneuvering required in Japanese politics. In government his expertise is in agriculture and fisheries, and he has served as minister in these fields in several cabinets.
Perhaps the most important point in Mr. Suzuki's favor is that he has worked closely with Mr. Tanaka in the past and is probably the most acceptable member of the Ohira faction to Mr. Tanaka and his followers.
Mr. Suzuki's selection as leader of the Ohira faction means that, at least temporarily, the name of Kiichi Miyazawa, a former foreign minister and the most internationally oriented of Japan's potential prime ministers, has receded from the race. Mr. Miyazawa, nine years younger than Mr. Suzuki, apparently still requires time to establish the faction-wide acceptability that is the first and most essential hurdle a prime ministerial candidate needs to surmount.