Gloves on for Japanese election fight

Thewhite gloves -- a must for candidates at all open-air election meetings here -- are out again. So too are the obligatory white election rosettes as candidates, gripping the rail of their loudspeaker vans, cruise the crowded streets appealing for "your one pure vote."

Although the ritual is the same the election is unexpected -- prompted by the surprise defeat of Liberal-Democratic Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira in the Japanese parliament.

As a result, a quarter century of Liberal- Democratic rule is at stake in the general election to be held June 22.

Official campaigning for the lower house started June 2. It began, for the upper house a couple of days earlier. Washington, Japan's ally and security guarantor, will be watching the results closely.

Will the 1980s be for these islands a period of political uncertainty matching the economic uncertainties that cloud the horizon? Can a new consensus be formed by a coalition stretching from the Liberal-Democrats to the more moderate opposition parties? The voters' verdict June 22 will supply the answers.

Defense is playing an unusually large role in the election debate. Retired Gen. Hiromi Kurisu is standing for the upper house as a Democratic Socialist candidate. A well-known hawk, retired two years ago for speaking out of turn, General Kurisu was told at first to spend at least half his speech time on daily rice bowl questions. "But I kept getting asked so many questions on defense, and people seemed so interested in my answers, that I am having to devote more and more time to the subject," he told reporters.

His view is that Japan can stand up even to the Soviet Union if people have the will and give themselves means to defend themselves. Conversely, Tokuma Utsunomiya, an equally well-known dove, who is standing for the upper house as an independent, says he gets a good response to his plea that Japan needs the kind of statesmanship that will keep the country out of wars.

The point of these two contrasting reports is not that the Japanese are hawks or doves but that for the first time they seem to be becoming aware that they live in dangerous and threatening world and are beginning to think seriously about how to respond to these threats -- whether by diplomacy alone or by some sort of strengthened defense capacity.

Political corruption is the major domestic issue between the two sides contesting the election -- the Liberal-Democrats seeking to retain power, and the opposition, from moderates to Communists, which is trying to unseat them. Prime Minister Ohira, before his sudden hospitalization June 2, said that he would make the restoration of political morality his main campaign slogan.

A rash of corruption cases involving Liberal-Democratic politicians has clouded the party's image and raised anew the question of whether it is healthy for one party to remain in power so long. The Liberal-Democrats, formed by merger of two conservative parties in 1955, have been in government since. Even before 1955, one or the other conservative party was in power except for a brief Socialist-Conservative coalition in 1947 and 1948.

Mr. Ohira's response to the question is that he cannot afford tohand over power to socialist amateurs who prate of unarmed neutrality as the best way to defend Japan. And, indeed, most Japanese still seem wary of entrusting government to the Socialists, who are the largest opposition party, or to any coalition in which they would be the leading partner.

Yet opposition politics has changed over the past severaly years. Today the socialists under a pragmatic chairman seem to be moving toward the middle. Instead of forming a quasi-alliance with the communists, as in previous years, they are cooperating closely with moderate parties -- the Democratic Socialists and the Komeito (whose nucleus of voters belong to a reformist Buddhist sect).

Many observers believe the Liberal-Democcrats will win a narrow majority in the more powerful lower house, while perhaps losing equally narrowly in the upper house. Either way, the results are likely to be close.

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