Japan's Spreading Stain

JAPAN's resigning prime minister, Noboru Takeshita, has bowed to the inevitable. The sweetheart stock deals, political contributions, and loans that he received from the Recruit Company may, in fact, be legal under Japan's lenient standards. But Mr. Takeshita has become the focal point of public disgust over the mushrooming Recruit scandal, and when he acknowledged misleading lawmakers about his dealings with the company, his fate was sealed. In the United States, comparable events - the resignation of Cabinet ministers and ultimately the head of government under an ethical cloud, arrests of corporate bagmen, etc. - would precipitate a major political crisis. But Japan has its own political culture.

A US specialist on Japanese affairs, trying to describe the furor in terms understandable to Americans, says the Recruit scandal is bigger than Wrightgate but smaller than Watergate. The scandal, she predicts, will not be a watershed event in Japanese political behavior nor in the public's (already cynical) perception of the country's ruling circles.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has choppy seas ahead of it, and may lose some seats in the upper-house elections this summer. But it probably will wriggle out of the scandal without effecting true reform and without being swept from power. Japanese voters are keenly aware that the LDP, hand in glove with powerful business interests, has led Japan through its postwar recovery to its current prosperity and world economic leadership.

The best hope for political and ethical reform in Japan is the people's growing awareness of their country's new international stature. Many want Japan to be seen as worthy of the responsibilities it will increasingly assume in world affairs, and they are raising their expectations of what constitutes acceptable political behavior.

It's to be hoped the Recruit scandal will prod that process.

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