A POLITICAL struggle as slow-moving as a kabuki play has opened in Japan.
Parliament shut down on Wednesday under a boycott by opposition parties. Scandals have been leaking out almost daily. And Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, already faulted for offending Americans with a comment that they lack a work ethic, is fading in popularity and grasping for backers.
Yet with the emperor in his palace and a strong bureaucracy in command, a public grown cynical by past political upheavals appears blandly calm about a stalemate among politicians.
The only big risk so far is whether the national budget will be approved by April 1, the start of the fiscal year.
"In Japan, democracy is just used as a baptism to cleanse away any wrongdoing by leaders," says Toshio Yamaguchi, a ranking leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
A gauge of the public response to the recent scandals involving several LDP members will come on Sunday in a by-election to fill an empty seat in the upper house. Three opposition parties are backing candidate Yukihisa Yoshida of the Democratic Socialist Party against the LDP choice, Nobuharu Enoki.
A close race is widely predicted. But an LDP win could serve to temper the opposition's public outrage at the scandals.
Sunday's vote is also seen as a test of how the LDP will fare this July in upper house elections.
In 1989, a big political scandal involving the Recruit Co. cost the LDP its majority in parliament's weaker upper chamber, putting a dent in its 36-year rule of Japan and its ability to govern.
"The LDP has been in power so long that it lacks a clear line on how much corruption is enough," Mr. Yamaguchi says.
Opposition parties are using Mr. Miyazawa's past ties to the Recruit scandal as well as the Feb. 1 indictment of his former aide, Fumio Abe, to tie up parliament and attack the LDP before the elections.
Mr. Abe was indicted for allegedly accepting a $640,000 bribe from a land developer, Kyowa Company, as well as taking another $4.3 million that the opposition claims Miyazawa used to pay LDP members to vote for him last fall in his bid to become prime minister. Also implicated in the official probe are two other close Miyazawa associates, former Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki and a former Cabinet member, Jun Shiozaki.
And lurking in the background are reports of an even bigger scandal being probed by prosecutors. This involves the Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin trucking firm which, according to political watcher Minoru Morita, borrowed $3.9 billion and used much of the money to gain favors from both gangsters and politicians.
The company was once close to former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, whose political faction within the LDP is now headed by Noboru Takeshita, the former prime minister ousted by the Recruit scandal.
Both Mr. Takeshita and his fellow LDP faction leader, Shin Kanemaru, acted as party kingpins to put Miyazawa into office. And as scandals have emerged and the popularity of the Miyazawa Cabinet has slipped quickly from more than 50 percent to below 40 percent, the prime minister has been forced to admit his dependency on the two top politicians.
At a geisha-served restaurant in Tokyo on Tuesday, according to local press reports, Mr. Kanemaru said he "cannot snatch the ladder away" from Miyazawa right now.
In response, Miyazawa reportedly said to Kanemaru: "I will not betray you and will not do anything contrary to your wishes. I'll consult you on everything."
Analysts offer several predictions for the political crisis. Some say Miyazawa will need to resign to get the budget passed, allowing the tainted Takeshita to become prime minister again. Others say Miyazawa will dissolve parliament in order to restore his prospects and hold a lower house election at the same time as the upper house vote.