Tanaka conviction freezes Japan Diet before Reagan visit

Japan's legislative process has come to a halt just weeks before President Reagan's first official visit to Tokyo. The impasse is the result of political fallout from the conviction last week of former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka on bribery charges.

The kingmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Tanaka was sentenced Oct. 12 to four years in prison for accepting 500 million yen ($2 million) from Lockheed Corporation a decade ago. Since the sentencing, there has been bitter fighting in the Japanese Diet (parliament).

Opposition members have refused to attend Diet sessions until the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) promises to allow introduction of a resolution calling for Tanaka's censure and explusion from the lower house, where he sits as an independent.

And groups within the ruling party have fought among themselves over whether Tanaka, who has appealed the verdict, should be allowed to remain as a member of parliament.

Tanaka, who issued a statement after his release on 300 million yen bail Wednesday, has rejected the court's finding and vowed to stay in the Diet until all avenues of appeal are exhausted. It is Tanaka's determination, despite public opinion polls that suggest more than 80 percent of the populace want him to resign, that has stymied the legislature.

But Susumu Nikaido, secretary-general of the LDP and titular head of the party faction which Tanaka leads from the sidelines, has so far blocked attempts to get the resolution before the house.

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who owes his leadership primarily to Tanaka's behind-the-scenes manipulation, has tried to remain aloof from the legislative predicament. But analysts say Mr. Nakasone has little room to manuever and may have to call a general election to resolve the crisis.

If that happens - late December seems most likely - public outrage at LDP refusal to deal with the former prime minister internally is likely to lead to major losses for Nakasone's party. And any losses to the party strike directly at Nakasone's own position.

Tradition here calls for leaders who fail to provide a ''sufficient'' margin of victory for their party - no one expects the LDP to lose - to resign, taking responsibility for the failure to win big.

Nakasone, who controls only 55 of the 422 LDP seats in the two houses of the Diet, would be hard pressed to buck tradition and try to hang on to his premiership, relying on personal support alone.

In fact, Tanaka, in a barely veiled threat to Nakasone, said over the weekend ''some politicians'' do not seem to realize that the prime ministership of Japan is ''like a hat'' that can easily be switched from one head to another.

Nikaido, Tanaka's front-line lieutenant, has attempted to take some of the heat off the ruling party by suggesting the opposition, in boycotting the Diet, is preventing passage of measures to send relief supplies to the people of Miyake Island south of Tokyo. The island was devastated by a recent volcanic eruption.

But the attempt was deflected when the opposition quickly agreed to pass those measures and then moved directly to the censure of Nikaido's puppeteer.

Even the bureaucracy, generally expected to take charge while the elected members thrash out their differences, seems exasperated by the Tanaka impasse. A Foreign Ministry official told reporters Sunday the deadlock has left them unable to prepare a proper welcome for President Reagan when he arrives in early November.

The ''proper welcome'' refers to settling at least some outstanding trade differences between Japan and the United States before Reagan's official visit begins. But the official said many decisions, especially ones on auto and agricultural issues, require tough political decisions that just are not being taken while everyone is concerned with Tanaka's position.

If Nakasone does decide to dissolve the lower house, his own position may be so tenuous that President Reagan will find himself in Japan meeting a lame-duck leader that may have to resign his post a month or two after Reagan leaves.

For the Japanese, who see the importance of making the visit successful as the US moves into an election year, Tanaka's bulldog-like determination to retain both his seat and his leadership from the confines of his Tokyo compound is an acute domestic embarrassment in danger of becoming a damaging international one.

Without a significant break in the Diet stalemate in the next week or two, the first visit of a US president to Japan since Jimmy Carter in 1979 is likely to be a far cry from the happy ''call me Ron, call me Yasu, part 2'' scenario most Japanese eagerly wish it to be.

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