Tokyo — Regularly twice a month for the past six years, the ritual has been repeated before the massed television cameras. The stocky, middle-age man with a florid complexion steps from his car, his left hand buttoning his jacket, the right half-raised in a jaunty salute for the cameramen.
The country's most powerful politician, Kakuei Tanaka, has arrived at the Tokyo district courthouse to continue his long battle against charges he accepted a bribe of more than $2 million from the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.
Mr. Tanaka was forced to resign as premier in 1974 in a scandal over whether he accumulated his wealth in questionable ways. In 1976, his career seemed over when he was charged with accepting a bribe to use his influence with Japanese airlines to buy the Lockheed Tristar jet.
Paradoxically, during the long trial his political influence has grown to unprecedented proportions.
The Tanaka faction in the Diet (parliament) - likened by critics to a mafia ''family'' - has grown from 74 to 110 members, the largest in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He is regarded as the undisputed ''kingmaker,'' the last three prime ministers having gained office only through Tanaka's direct influence.
On Wednesday, the prosecution concluded its case against Tanaka by demanding a five-year jail term at hard labor, saying the former prime minister's crime had ''caused people to lose their trust in the probity and impartiality of (the nation's) administrators, creating a grave impact on society.'' The prosecution has asked for a fine of $2 million. The verdict is expected next October.
In the course of the trial, Tanaka astonished many people by taking a more dangerous, but typically aggressive, course than that of other politicians investigated for corruption: From the first hearing, when he faced judges with tears in his eyes, to the final 180th session he proclaimed he was innocent.
The prosecution seemingly has drawn the net tight around him. Three fellow defendants, senior executives of the Marubeni Trading Company, Lockheed's sales agent in Japan, have described under oath how cardboard boxes stuffed with money were handed over to Tanaka's private secretary, Toshio Enomoto who is also on trial.
Even as prosecutors were making their final summation, opposition parties were organizing street demonstrations to back moves in the Diet for the former premier's resignation.
But, until now at least, the public has shown apathy toward the whole affair, apparently feeling that ''all politicians are corrupt, so what's so different about Tanaka?''
Popular, outspoken political critic Naoki Komuro likens Tanaka's acceptance of a bribe to stealing a box of tissues from a supermarket ''by standards prevailing in today's corrupt world.''
Political corruption is the price the people have to pay for democracy, he argues, adding: ''If you really want to look for corruption-free politicians you might find many among the military men who dominated government before the war and led us to disaster.'' Komuro believes Japan is approaching a major international crisis - particularly in its relations with the United States - and Tanaka ''is the only man capable of leading the country with strong resolve.''
He is not alone in his views of the Tanaka episode. Many of Tanaka's supporters actually regard his trial as an American plot to destroy their leader.
The basis for this is that evidence of the bribe first surfaced in US congressional testimony by Lockheed executives.
They believe that Tanaka's tough stance as prime minister in the first round of Japan-US trade friction - over textiles - led to a move among American multinational corporations to ''get him.''
The problem for those seeking his downfall is that he is still a hero to many Japanese as the most dynamic and charismatic postwar leader, and the man they want to emulate.
The interest now lies in how Tanaka will seek to mitigate the political fallout from a guilty verdict later this year - something of equal concern to his protege, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.
Tanaka is agitating for an early general election - perhaps this June, a year ahead of schedule - in the belief he can strengthen his political base even further. With his supporters in key government posts, it is conjectured, efforts would be made to have the verdict overturned or any jail term suspended or perhaps annulled by a political pardon.
To some Japanese, the whole Tanaka saga is lamentable, showing that after three decades in power the LDP no longer is able to check its own abuses of power. But there is no opposition force on the horizon seemingly capable of offering a viable alternative.