Japan: when 'shadow shogun' talks, everyone listens

His name is Kakuei Tanaka, and he is a former prime minister of Japan. When he rasps a command into the telephone in his sandpaper voice, party and government functionaries shrivel and hasten to obey.

He can be lavishly generous, too, in word and in deed. He is the kind of man for whom clerks do not begrudge working 24-hour days.

He is also a defendant in a criminal trial that has dragged on for 3 1/2 years and that may take 10 years, appeals and all. The main charge is corruption -- accepting a $2 million bribe in the world-girdling Lockheed bribery scandal.

Mr. Tanaka's personality and past have a direct bearing on the choice of a prime minister to succeed the late Masayoshi Ohira after the June 22 election. He leads the most powerful faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). And whether or not the Liberal Democrats as a whole win a majority in the election, Mr. Tanaka's faction is expected to gain more seats.

Prospective parliamentary candidates flock to Mr. Tanaka like bees to honey, not merely because of the generous campaign funds he is said to provide, but also because they know his "yes" means yes and his "no" no, and that if he bestirs himself on their behalf seemingly insuperable obstacles melt away.

Yet technically, Mr. Tanaka is not even a member of the LDP. He had to resign when he was indicted, and he has sat in the Diet as an independent ever since.

Mr. Tanaka was Mr. Ohira's chief supporter. Together the Tanaka and Ohira factions have more than 100 members in the lower house. As long as they stay united no one can hope to be elected prime minister without their support.

The three leading contenders for the prime ministership -- Yasuhiro Nakasone, Toshio Komoto, and Kiichi Miyazawa -- are all said to be vying for this support.

With no realistic hope of becoming prime minister again because of the sheer lenght of time the trial and appeals procedures will take, Mr. Tanaka is said to be intend on building up an impregnable position as the party's No. 1 kingmaker. He already bears the sobriquet of "shadow shogun" -- shoguns having been the military rulers of Japan during centuries of feudal rule.

Some say Mr. Nakasone has the inside track to the Tanaka faction. Others say Mr. Komoto is closer. Still others that former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, to whose faction Mr. Tanaka once belonged, has put urged Mr. Miyazawa on the "shadow shogun."

The implications for the rank and file voter are serious. Mr. Tanaka's entrenched position within a party to which he does not even belong means that while the voter has the privilege June 22 of choosing the Liberal Democrats, say , over the socialists or some other opposition party, he has no real voice in the selection of Japan's future leader. That will be decided behind closed doors, with personal considerations likely to play a much greater role those of statesmanship.

Mr. Komoto, for instance, belongs to the faction headed by former prime minister Takeo Miki. It was Mr. Miki who made the political decision to allow the arrest of Mr. Tanaka in 1976. Mr. Komoto is not likely to get the Tanaka faction's support unless he breaks with Mr. Miki.

Similarly, the justice minister who actually ordered the arrest of Mr. Tanaka is a member of the Nakasone faction. Mr. Nakasone will have to do something about that if he wants the Tanaka votes.

What does all this say about the state of political morality and, indeed, of democracy in Japan today?

Mr. Tanaka himself is said to have no sense of improper behavoir, to say nothing of guilt, in the Lockheed bribery affair. Politics is an expensive business, his supporters explain, and whatever money he may have taken was used not for personal gain but for political purposes.

Yet, to many Japanese, there is something that grates about Mr. Tanaka's behavoir, both in the bribery case itself and in the way he continues to dispense money and favors like a monarch still sitting on his throne.

"Economically, we are one of the most advanced countries in the world," says one Japanese. "Politically, I am afraid we are still trapped in our own version of the age of 'godfathers.'"

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