The Japanese opposition hopes to make political hay out of allegations that the government here mishandled economic aid to the government of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) agreed last week to a demand from the opposition to set up a special committee in the Diet (parliament) to investigate alleged bribes by Japanese companies in deals involving Japanese economic aid to the Philippines.
It is the first time that the Diet has created such a special body since its inquiry into the Lockheed payoff scandal. The scandal, which lasted more than a decade, ended with the convictions in 1979 of former Premier Kakuei Tanaka and other LDP leaders for taking bribes from the Lockheed aircraft corporation.
The opposition has been pounding the government of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone with sharp questions in the Diet since the names of a number of Japanese companies involved in possible kickbacks to Marcos family members and associates surfaced in documents seized in Hawaii by United States Customs officials.
Behind the opposition's charges of misuse of aid are suspicions that prominent LDP members may have served as middlemen in such deals. The furor over the issue is prompting concerns among government officials that the inquiry will put a hold on new aid to the government of President Corazon Aquino. (Japan is the Philippines' biggest aid donor, ahead of the US.)
``It's getting difficult to do something new -- we have to answer questions in the Diet,'' said one Foreign Ministry official who asked not to be identified.
The opposition parties, observers say, have an eye on forthcoming June elections for the upper house of the Diet and a possible unscheduled election for the lower house as well at the same time.
``Politicians are very concerned about that [double elections],'' says Seizaburo Sato, a Tokyo University political science professor. ``They'd like to make use of this scandal -- they did in the case of the Lockheed scandal.''
The tension heightened last week, when a top government official, economic planning agency chief Wataru Hiraizumi, tried to quash opposition queries by insisting that the use of Japanese loans ``is a domestic matter in the Philippines.'' Mr. Hiraizumi told a Diet committee that the loans ``are like a husband giving money to his wife for shopping. The husband can't know how his wife has used the money.''
Enraged opposition members demanded Hiraizumi's resignation and boycotted the Diet, halting deliberations on several key bills. Forming the special body, which has been given the power to subpoena witnesses for sworn testimony, allowed the Diet to resume business.
In agreeing to the investigation, the government insisted that it could not release documents that might harm relations with the Philippines. So far, it has refused to disclose names of Japanese companies that won contracts for projects funded by government loans.
``The contracting parties are the Philippine government and the company,'' a Foreign Ministry official said. ``We are not sure if it is proper for the Japanese government to make all those names public -- it is for the Philippine government to do that.''
The official contended that the Aquino government is also opposed to any investigation that might harm bilateral relations. He hinted that there were differences of opinion in the Aquino government over the wisdom of pursuing an inquiry into alleged Japanese business dealings with Marcos.
The government's unwillingness to release documents is likely to feed suspicions that the ruling party is trying to ``cover up'' a potential scandal.
Despite intense rumors of LDP links, however, there is no evidence at this point of a new ``Lockheed.''
But the potential political benefit from such an issue is bound to keep the opposition searching for signs of a fresh scandal.
``I'm sure some LDP men are implicated,'' comments Masashi Nishihara, an expert on Japanese relations with Southeast Asia. LDP politicians, he suggests, might have ``acted as fixers between Japanese firms and the Marcos government or between Japanese firms and the Japanese government.'' But, Professor Sato says, ``as long as nothing comes from the Philippines, the opposition cannot do anything.''
So far, the main source of information for the investigation is the set of documents released in Washington by the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, led by Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York. That fact alone is creating some resentment among Japanese government officials.
``There's a widely spread opinion that Mr. Solarz is taking advantage of this issue just for his own political interests,'' Sato says.
An informed source close to the Foreign Ministry said, ``I'm not sure if this sort of publication of these documents is in line with the wishes of the executive branch of the US government.''
Many Japanese defend the payment of ``commissions'' by Japanese firms, as was indicated in the Marcos documents, as normal business practice in this part of the world. There is even a belief expressed by some that their companies are being unfairly singled out.
Such ``simplistic arguments,'' Sato says, ``are a very dangerous sign. It might ignite anti-American feelings inside the establishment.''