AS scandal after scandal chips away at the ability of Japan's ruling party to lead the nation, top politicians are bracing for the worst.
A wave of political intrigue and bribery scandals in Japan has the look of a Shakespearean play, warned Komaki Kurihara, a famed actress who was invited to speak at the convention of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Wednesday.
"LDP members, you should cut the acting and be more truthful," she advised. "Conspiracy and betrayal should be left to Shakespeare."
Truth will be the issue when the Diet (parliament) opens today. Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa is expected to be grilled by the opposition for alleged corruption of his former top aides, one of whom, legislator Fumio Abe, was arrested Jan. 13. Mr. Miyazawa has publicly apologized, but that has not weakened pressure on Mr. Abe to give up his lower- house seat.
The public scrutiny of Miyazawa's possible links to payoffs could paralyze efforts by the LDP to have parliament pass a 1992 budget as well as a bill allowing Japanese soldiers to serve under the United Nations flag.
"The situation is very serious," says Tokai University political science professor Rei Shiratori. "The Miyazawa Cabinet, which is less than three months old, is very fragile."
Leading LDP politician Shin Kanemaru reportedly said the Miyazawa government is as "unreliable as a boat made of mud." To shore up his prospects, especially in dealing with the opposition, Miyazawa convinced the powerful Mr. Kanemaru to take over the No. 2 slot in the party earlier this month.
In addition to the Diet debate, both LDP members and Japanese media predict that Tokyo prosecutors will soon arrest one or more politicians on bribery charges connected with a troubled delivery firm, Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin, allegedly tied to organized crime.
Some pundits predict the possible scandal could equal in its political fallout the 1988-89 stocks-for-favor Recruit scandal that toppled a prime minister. Last month, Miyazawa had to dissolve parliament early when the opposition dug into his involvement in Recruit. He had to resign as finance minister in 1988 after admitting that a top aide took money from the Recruit company.
"Politicians feel they will have to offer up one or two scapegoats to appease the anger of the people," says political commentator Minoru Morita, even though the scandal may involve dozens of politicians and billions of yen in bribes.
The biggest topic around Nagatocho (Japan's seat of government), he adds, is who will be sacrificed.
At the same time, the LDP might find Miyazawa useful in the potential scandal over Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin because it is widely presumed that he had nothing to do with the affair. Vote to measure resentment
The effects of the scandals are expected to be measured in a Feb. 9 local election to fill an upper house seat. The vote will measure public sentiment against the LDP for its "money politics" and perhaps foreshadow how the party might fare in polls this July for the full upper house. The LDP lost control of the weaker upper chamber in 1989, in part because of the Recruit scandal.
"Miyazawa may be ousted by March and not even make it until the July election," suggests Takeshi Kono, a political scientist at Kyorin University.
"The LDP might just 'cut the lizard's tail' and replace Miyazawa with a someone who has a cleaner image," he adds.
Dr. Shiratori says the LDP may have to strike a deal with the opposition parties to halt their hounding of the prime minister in the Diet and to pass the government budget by the start of the fiscal year (April 1). "They can just dump Miyazawa," he says.
Many LDP leaders say they also might be able to reduce their expected losses in the upper-house vote by calling for an election for the lower house on the same day in July, a year and a half earlier than required. The LDP is much better at lower-house electioneering, says Mr. Morita, and that would help them in the other races.
At present the LDP holds a minority 116 seats in the 252-seat upper house. A further loss of seats would make it difficult for the LDP to pass important legislation, such as a possible change in a ban on imported rice. It has failed to win over small opposition parties to form a coalition.
A number of scandals over the past year, say many observers, are caused by a bursting of Japan's economic "bubble," with falling markets and a rising number of bankruptcies helping to reveal a host of bribery and corruption cases.
One problem in the current situation, says Dr. Kono, is that "you can't rely too much on the opposition parties because they are not entirely clean themselves."
"Today, the power of the media is largely affecting public opinion. The question of Miyazawa's survival is really up to the media," he adds.
But a Jan. 23 editorial in the Mainichi newspaper stated that "More and more observers tend to believe that political corruption is embedded in Japanese society and seemingly tolerated by the media."
But young and reform-minded prosecutors are also reflecting public outrage at the LDP, Morita says, and are going after bribery within the party. Indictments expected
Any new indictments against LDP members (and some are expected in February) "can be called a declaration of war by prosecutors against political circles," he says.
Adding to Miyazawa's woes was House Speaker Yoshio Sakurauchi's statement to a local audience Monday that Americans are lazy and that 30 percent are illiterate. This worsened Japan-US ties and more after an unsuccessful trade visit to Tokyo by President Bush.