Japan's Ruling Party Sinks Further in Public Estimate

THERE is no relief in sight for Japan's weary ruling conservative party. After two weeks in office, the newly installed administration of Prime Minister Sosuke Uno shows no signs of dampening public distaste over the Recruit Company corruption scandal. To complicate matters, Mr. Uno has a scandal of his own to fend off - charges from a former geisha that he paid her about $20,000 for a five-month extramarital affair in 1985.

Uno is dogged by the accusation, frequently conveyed in the Japanese media, that he is at best a caretaker prime minister. At worst, Uno is dismissed as merely a cover for ruling party power broker Noboru Takeshita, who was forced to step down as premier by the corruption scandal.

Opinion polls show the Uno administration scoring the lowest marks since the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took control of government in 1955. Only 28 percent of those responding in the nationwide poll supported the Uno Cabinet, matching previous lows, while a record high 44 percent said they do not support the government.

The key factor in public opinion, according to the poll, is the continued distrust of the LDP's willingness to clean up the sordid links between money and politics revealed in the Recruit affair. The powerful presence of members of the Takeshita faction of the LDP in the ranks of the new Cabinet and party leadership annoys many.

The LDP's game plan for a political recovery combines the inauguration of the new ``clean'' Uno Cabinet with the official end of the public prosecutors investigation and the passage, later this month, of political reform legislation. Then, the LDP hopes to reduce the losses expected in scheduled elections for the upper house of parliament, probably on July 23.

The prosecutors' effort formally concluded this week with the final report of the Justice Ministry to the Diet (parliament). Aside from company officials and bureaucrats, the prosecutors found evidence to indict two members of parliament, one from the LDP and one opposition party member, for receiving bribes from Recruit in return for favors to the company. But 11 other politicians known to have received unlisted shares of company stock, guaranteed to provide profits when the stock went public, went untouched.

When the Justice Ministry presented its report, even those so-called ``gray politicians'' were left unidentified, although their names have been widely published.

The group includes former Premiers Takeshita and Yasuhiro Nakasone, former Finance Minister Miyazawa, and former chairman of the opposition Democratic Socialist Party - all of whom were forced to resign key posts due to the scandal. Under pressure from opposition party parliamentarians, a Justice Ministry official revealed those names during a question-and-answer session in the upper house Budget Committee, but he refused to comment on the remaining seven.

A separate poll conducted following the end of the investigation found 82 percent of the respondents dissatisfied with the LDP's handling of the case, while 74 percent said they were also unhappy with the way politics is conducted.

The added sway of Uno's sex scandal on the public mind is more difficult to assess.

There are signs the LDP could lose support from women due to the scandal. But the way the issue has developed also suggests that moral concerns are less important than Japanese worries about how the story will affect their image abroad.

The account by the unidentified geisha of her relationship with Uno first appeared on June 4 in the Sunday Mainichi, a weekly magazine linked to the major daily Mainichi Shimbun. But the major Japanese dailies, including the Mainichi, held to the tradition of not publishing reports of sexual affairs by politicians.

The story had little impact until it was covered by the Washington Post, followed by other Western media. Uno says this is a ``private affair,'' and refuses to publicly comment on it.

Extramarital affairs have long been an accepted part of life in Japan, notes Japan scholar Edward Seidensticker.

But, the Asahi Shimbun argued in a editorial this week, ``the public's attitude has changed a lot. It is no longer socially acceptable for public servants to be allowed to avoid revealing their affairs....''

Such affairs ``are not unusual at all among Dietmen, especially LDP Dietmen,'' says political insider Shigezo Hayasaka, former private secretary to political boss Kakuei Tanaka. But, he adds, ``the old sense of values that [having a mistress] shows one's worth as a man is now attacked by `woman power.'''

There seems little possibility that the sex scandal alone will bring down Uno. But the affair has damaged his personal credibility, which rests almost solely on his supposedly ``clean'' image and his ability to handle foreign relations due to long Cabinet experience. However, the Asahi asserts, ``His clean image is now at the cliff.''

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