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Japanese leader struggles with political shortcomings

By Geoffrey MurraySpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 29, 1982


Not since immediate after World War II has a Japanese prime minister assumed office facing a wider range of seemingly intractable problems.

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Yasuhiro Nakasone has inherited a host of difficulties that have been building up inexorably over the past decade, resulting in the downfall of five prime ministers since 1972 after an average of two years in power.Should he fail , too, ''Nakasone will be forced to exit after a much shorter term than his predecessor,'' predicted political commentator Toshiya Kawahara.

Mr. Nakasone begins his administration with the same political weaknesses and factional disunity that hobbled and eventually toppled the five previous administrations. His relations with other powerful figures within the party are shaky after the long, divisive power struggle that led to his election, and considerable distrust and unease remains.

A major built-in weakness of the new administration is its heavy dependence on the goodwill and support of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. Officially, Tanaka left the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1976 after he was arrested in the Lockheed bribes scandal. But his influence is as strong as ever, working through the 108 Dietmen who form the LDP's largest faction.

Given his narrow power base Nakasone could not have become prime minister without the support of the Tanaka faction. This fact of political life is reflected in Tanaka supporters gaining six Cabinet posts as well as the powerful position of LDP secretary-general.

This provoked immediate outrage within the party, with one LDP member complaining, ''Tanaka has hijacked the government.'' Newspapers are referring to it derisively as the ''Tanaka Cabinet,'' with Nakasone merely a figurehead.

A close Tanaka confidant, former Police Superintendent General Akira Hatano, has been given the Justice Ministry. This is a highly sensitive portfolio because the Tokyo District Court is to hand down its verdict on the former prime minister next year. (It is widely assumed he will be found guilty.)

Mr. Nakasone's pressing political task is to rebuild the ruling party, which has grown lax and antiquated through more than three decades of uninterrupted rule, breeding public apathy and alienating many Japanese from the political process.

Democracy has had a hard time taking root in Japan, mainly due to a lack of viable alternatives to the LDP. The opposition parties, complained a respected political analyst, have come to see themselves as just that - opposed to the policies of the LDP, but not presenting any concrete programs that would persuade voters to put the opposition in charge.

Ichiko Kawakami, a housewife, sums up the postwar generation's feelings: ''My father is a doctor. He doesn't like the LDP at all, but he votes for it because he is frightened that if the opposition parties gain power his income will . . . suffer.

''I think a lot of older Japanese feel that way, voting out of fear for their continued livelihood rather than political conviction. By comparison, most of the younger people I know never bother to vote because they feel the LDP is hopelessly corrupt but there is no one else worth voting for.''