SULLIED by a past money scandal, top politicians in Japan are devising a cleansing ritual for themselves unlike anything performed in Shinto or Buddhist sanctums. The ritual, a shuffling of the Cabinet and high posts in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is being readied for January. It would mark a turning point for Japan, since the move is expected to reinstate a number of LDP members tainted or tossed out last year by the so-called Recruit scandal.
So far, back-room maneuvering has served to undercut the ability of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu to take strong decisions during the Gulf crisis, recent international trade talks, and a looming number of critical disputes with the United States, many Tokyo analysts say.
The sidelined politicians believe their tarnished reputations have been ``purified'' by their resignations, by recent election wins of the LDP, and by the simple lapse of time.
``The party seeks a refreshing of the people's mind through a Cabinet reshuffle,'' states an LDP official.
Many LDP leaders were victims of public outrage over the stock-for-favors Recruit scandal that brought down the Cabinet of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita in May 1989 and which helped the party to lose control of the upper house of the Diet, or parliament. The scandal implicated about 160 influential politicians, businessmen, and government officials. Twelve of them have been put on trial or convicted.
Once little known, Mr. Kaifu was selected from parliament's back bench by party elders for his ``clean image'' and as a way to give time for the party to recover from the Recruit purge.
As a ``caretaker'' prime minister, he remains vulnerable to party in-fighting. But he has survived because of persistent reminders of the Recruit scandal and the LDP's inability to revive a gentleman's agreement among powerful factions on choosing new prime ministers by seniority and rotation.
``Will Kaifu be allowed to maintain his post only because there are no appropriate successors?'' says Kenji Kitahara, political editor of Yomiuri newspaper. ``This is likely to be the most important issue in Japan during the coming year.''
Officially, Kaifu's term as party president and thus as prime minister ends next October. But he could be ousted at any moment. His popularity in the polls, which has helped him stay in power, has dropped in recent weeks to about 40 percent as he failed to quell party intrigue over a shuffle and his apparent bungling of Japan's response to the Gulf crisis.
Despite US pressure, Kaifu was late to respond to the crisis and also was unable to galvanize party support to pass a bill that would allow Japanese troops to go to the Middle East.
His political weakness was also made embarrassingly clear as prominent LDP leaders took over some of the reins of foreign policy in Japan's dealings with China, the Soviet Union, Iraq, North Korea, and the US. LDP elder Shin Kanemaru's promise of money to North Korea in September has tied Kaifu's hand in talks to establish ties with that country.
In his defense, Kaifu cites his close ties to President Bush as trade disputes will heat up in 1991. But Mr. Bush has made so many phone calls to Kaifu asking for support on economic and Gulf matters that the Japanese prime minister has come across as weak, with a joke circulating that he makes decisions from a ``Bush-button phone.''
``The most puzzling thing is why the country has accepted this as leadership,'' says Yoichi Funabashi, an Asahi newspaper writer. Michael Armacost, the US ambassador to Japan, told a group of Japanese professors in November that ``it would be a lot better for Japan'' if it did not rely on foreign pressure to force it to harmonize its economic policies with the rest of the world.
Last February, when his popularity was high and memories of Recruit strong, Kaifu fought off a party challenge to appoint three scandal-tainted politicians to high posts. Their comeback would have set the stage for two leaders of LDP factions, Shintaro Abe and Michio Watanabe, to shed their Recruit reputations and restore a pre-Recruit assumption that they were in line to be prime ministers. Opposing the move was Mr. Takeshita, the former head of the largest LDP faction, who may be plotting his own comeback, even though for now he holds a strong influence over Kaifu's future.
In an appeal to public opinion, Kaifu staked his political life on passing reforms to reduce the ``money politics'' that so pervades the ties between the LDP and business. There were so many politicians involved in Recruit, says party kingpin Shin Kanemaru, that a ``cleansing'' is necessary.
But the news media have sided with Kaifu by not letting memories of Recruit disappear. If a shuffle brings in tainted leaders, said a Dec. 12 Asahi newspaper editorial, Kaifu ``will be met with repulsion from public opinion.'' And some younger LDP members see Kaifu as needed to make a long-awaited generational shift within the party.
As a last-ditch effort, Kaifu is scheduling trips abroad next month and citing a need for leadership continuity to cope with visits to Japan by Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the spring. Japan faces the prospect of being forced to lift its ban on imported rice at the final round of the current General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks.
Kaifu also insists that a Cabinet shuffle must be linked to approval of election reform. But he has met strong opposition. His original deadline for approval was last month. Under the present election system, up to six candidates are elected from one district. In November, a high-level council recommended reducing the number of seats and shifting to a mainly single-seat system. The Supreme Court has ruled that the system fails to provide one-person, one-vote equality.