Japan's Watergate: verdict tomorrow in Tanaka trial puts political morality to test

Political morality is now an overriding issue in Japan. It centers on one man: former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. And it involves one key question: Is a politician above the law and unaccountable to the public?

Tanaka was forced to resign in 1974 over irregularities in the way he amassed considerable personal fortune. Two years later, his political career seemed to be over. Following testimony given in the United States Congress, he was arrested for allegedly receiving a 500 million yen ($2.2 million) bribe from the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to influence a Japanese airline to buy the American company's aircraft.

It was Japan's Watergate with one big difference - while Richard Nixon no longer exercises power, Tanaka still does. During a six-year trial which climaxes in a verdict Oct. 12, the former prime minister astonishingly has been able to maintain his dominance over the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The last three prime ministers, including the present incumbent, Yasuhiro Nakasone, could not have assumed office without Tanaka's pervasive influence.

Although ostensibly an independent - he quit the LDP after his arrest in 1976 - Tanaka today controls with an iron hand the ruling party's largest faction, now claiming 119 members, about one-third the LDP's total strength in the Diet (parliament).

On Wednesday, however, he will enter Tokyo district court to learn his verdict. The prosecution has established what a majority of Japanese seem to consider a strong case of guilt. He faces up to five years in jail.

The question now being debated nationwide, therefore, is: If Tanaka is found guilty, will he resign his Diet seat, an act which would assume responsibility in the accepted Japanese manner?

Tanaka has repeatedly said he won't resign. If he maintains this defiance, it will not only affect the Diet, but also challenge the whole basis of postwar politics in Japan.

Recent polls show at least 80 percent of the public want Tanaka to quit politics entirely if he is found guilty. Opposition parties are planning to try to force the issue in the Diet, but can do so only if elements within the ruling party opposed to Tanaka vote against him or at least abstain.

But it's obvious many Japanese have mixed feelings about Tanaka. They admire him as a self-made man who rose from being the ill-educated son of a poor farmer to triumph over ''the establishment'' and assume the highest political office in the land.

His gritty determination to cling to power even after his resignation and arrest, and the way he has succeeded in wielding political power, also fits in well with the Japanese admiration for the old ''grit-the-teeth'' attitude of samurai warriors in times of adversity.

Several hundred national politicians have been investigated on bribery charges in the postwar era without much national fuss. And the same pattern permeates right down to the village level.

And although many citizens and politicians are outraged by his actions, they have unwittingly become used to the pattern of Tanaka's politics. They believe his powerful presence has become an important factor in maintaining the stability of the political situation. And yet most people will mant him to quit if the verdict on Wednesday is ''guilty.'' It's really not so much the fact that he accepted a bribe. Many Japanese shrug their shoulders and say, ''Well, that's politics.''

His crime, in most eyes, was in getting caught and then failing to set a good example by accepting responsibility.

Critics claim this has had a bad influence on the nation. The Mainichi newspaper pointed out recently: ''Tanaka's behavior has had wide-ranging adverse effects. People have become apathetic about politics. Plutocracy in politics has now spread to other areas, like people believing it is OK to 'purchase' university professorships or buy influence and gain advantage in many other ways through bribes.''

A group of young LDP Dietmen have produced a memorandum in which they argue against the ''might is right'' philosophy demonstrated by the dominant Tanaka faction, and the notion that the political world is a special society, and politicians may do what they like.

Their fear is that if the LDP cannot demonstrate it knows right from wrong, it may find itself out of government. With the opposition parties currently so weak, that could be disastrous for the country.

If Tanaka does fail to resign, there is a strong belief Prime Minister Nakasone would come under great pressure to call an early general election. If he did badly, his job would be in jeopardy, plunging the LDP into dangerous factional infighting that again could be damaging to Japan in many ways, not least for example in the economic field, where this country is currently so vulnerable.The verdict, in the eyes of many commentators, will mark an important turning point. Ever since Tanaka's arrest there have been numerous but so far ineffectual attempts to establish a code of political ethics and abolish the ''money can buy anything'' attitude that has typified postwar Japanese politics, with the Tanaka case as its climax.

Under pressure of the court decision, the Diet is again seeking to reform itself in ways that will win back public confidence. Yet, paradoxically, there are some Dietmen who fear Tanaka's resignation will damage this effort. It could , they think, create a feeling that the problem has been solved and there is no need to proceed further, the requirements of political morality having been satisfied.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.