IN Japan's parliamentary democracy, the fall of a government is not unusual. What makes Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita's resignation on Tuesday so different is that it was forced by the power of public opinion. It was a rare exercise of people's power in a system characterized by the stable rule of one party, virtually without a break, since the end of World War II. The tumultuous events have raised hopes among many Japanese that this will lead to profound reforms in the political system.
And there are good reasons for that belief. Most important is that the Recruit Company corruption scandal which toppled Prime Minister Takeshita smeared the whole system, not just a single individual.
But there are also grounds for the cynicism many Japanese feel. The structure of corruption is deep-set. Most of all, Japanese politics has failed to provide a real alternative in the form of a viable opposition ready to take power. ``Because of opposition disunity,'' says one long-time American expert, ``real change in the system won't happen quickly.''
Since the revelations began last June, the public has gotten a picture of an amazingly widespread pattern of dispersal of money across the political world.
Almost the entire ruling party leadership, plus some opposition figures, got Recruit funds, some in the form of cut-rate stocks. The combination of tens of millions of yens in payoffs with the imposition of a highly unpopular 3 percent sales tax incensed the middle class.
The Takeshita administration, while promising reforms, tried to tough it out. ``I must admit I did not expect that the public distrust of politics would develop into an uproar of such dimensions,'' Mr. Takeshita said Tuesday.
Takeshita's complacency had some justification. Corruption scandals are not new to Japan or to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The most famous case was the 1974 ouster of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka for financial irregularities, and his arrest two years later for the Lockheed payoff scandal.
But the party has always dealt with such challenges through changing the faces at the top.
There are suspicions among the opposition that the LDP is seeking to regain its support with the same tactics, this time switching Takeshita with another ``clean'' leader, probably former Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ito.
The party structure lends itself to this kind of response. It is divided into formal factions, each with a prominent leader, well known to the public. The factions are not defined by ideology but by their ability to deliver patronage to their constituents.
On a policy level, the party has been united in offering voters continued stability and rising living standards. And the LDP has delivered the goods without fail during its more-than 40 years of rule. Support for the opposition has grown only to the point of acting as a check on the LDP's absolute power.
The Japanese have had little incentive to try the untested alternative of a multi-party opposition that has never had power except for an eight-month-long Socialist Party-led coalition government in 1948. The Socialists, a left-wing social democratic party, are the largest group, working loosely with the more middle of the road Democratic Socialist Party and the Buddhist Komei (Clean Government) party. The Communist Party, on the left, is the most strident opposition group.
In a sense, the LDP offers voters a built-in opposition within itself. Until the early 1980s, Cabinets were formed from alliances of ``mainstream'' factions, with ``anti-mainstream'' factions remaining outside. Changes in government have almost always come from factional power struggles within the party, with events such as election failures or corruption scandals used to oust rivals from the premiership.
When the LDP has been under fire, the factional shifts have provided a means to satisfy popular discontent. ``But this time, there was no power struggle,'' explains veteran political reporter Shoichi Oikawa of the Yomiuri Shimbun.
Ultimately, Mr. Oikawa asserts, ``Takeshita resigned because of the self-destruction of the entire LDP.''
``We want to emphasize that a major factor in the people's criticism of the LDP stems from the haughty way they have used their vast majority in the Diet [Japanese Parliament],'' the liberal daily Asahi Shimbun wrote in its editorial on Wednesday. ``The people are also angered over the inability of the LDP to reform itself.''
That anger, opposition leaders hope, is far from dissipated by the Takeshita resignation. ``People who felt apathy that nothing would change, even after an election, have come to know that Nagatacho [Japan's Capitol Hill] can be frightened by their vote,'' says Socialist Party parliamentarian Tamio Kawakami.
Many analysts share the view that the next election, no matter what new face the LDP offers, will bring a loss of the party's majority. ``It would not be strange if the party is forced to turn over the helm of national politics to the opposition parties,'' the Asahi predicted.
Earlier this month the Socialists and their two moderate allies presented themselves as such a potential government. But so far, this has little credibility to voters or to most analysts. ``A coalition government among the opposition is simply impossible,'' says Tokyo University political scientist Seizaburo Sato. Without the LDP or the Communists, they simply lack the numbers to make a majority, he argues. And their policy differences are quite large, with the Socialists favoring breaking the United States-Japanese security alliance while the others support it.
The more likely possibility is a coalition of the LDP with one or both of the two moderate opposition parties. Both are traditionally closer in ideology to the LDP and inclined to compromise with them. That might be accompanied by a generational shift of power in the LDP, with younger leaders in their 50s coming forward.