Japan's Political Jolt

POLITICAL scandals are nothing new to the Japanese public. The "Recruit" scandal of the late '80s - which involved influence-buying by a communications company of that name - toppled a prime minister and sent ripples of disgust through the society. The scandal of the last few weeks, however, could top past exposes of corruption. It might even herald genuine change in Japanese politics.

The central figure this time around is Shin Kanemaru. Until his resignation from parliament last week, Mr. Kanemaru led the most powerful faction within the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He was the maker or breaker of prime ministers.

But in the course of making a prime minister back in 1987, Kanemaru reportedly asked the help of a major gangland figure to quiet right-wing protests against the candidacy of Noboru Takeshita (who later fell from the top job because of the Recruit affair). Kanemaru also accepted an illegal $4 million contribution from a trucking firm with ties to the same powerful gangster.

These revelations have sent waves, not ripples, through Japan. But will they lead to reform of a political culture that, despite recurrent corruption, has served well since World War II?

The most-needed reform is an end to the multi-seat electoral districts that create intense competition among parliamentary candidates representing various LDP factions. Money flows to faction leaders, who help loyal members service their constituents.

Single-seat districts would be less in need of the factions' support - which is why they're not likely to be implemented any time soon. Those now in the Diet owe their seats to the current system.

But the public's growing disgust with politics as usual may bring results nonetheless. The Kanemaru scandal has caused a scramble for leadership within the LDP. Unquestioning deference to all-powerful faction leaders could be on its way out as politicians sense that voters will no longer tolerate back-room decisionmaking by a few powerful and corrupt men. Such decisionmaking has produced a succession of short-term prime ministers selected primarily for their subordination to party bosses. Some younger LD P members are pushing a reform agenda. Fresh leaders could emerge.

Politically, it's a dynamic time in Japan. The country has a chance to start weaning its still-young democracy away from the money politics that breed corruption. This is a crucial, ongoing process in any democracy, as Americans can attest.

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