Scandal in Tokyo

IN one sense, the bribery scandals besetting the government of Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa are a return to politics as usual in Tokyo. Such scandals have rocked Japanese administrations for over a decade. But there's a difference in the degree of exposure being given these latest charges of malfeasance.

The frequency and depth of today's revelations about politicians accepting gifts of cash from private companies hasn't always been the norm. It suggests the time may finally be at hand for genuine political reform.

That, however, won't come easily. Strong elements in the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) oppose it. Reform-minded Japanese, on the other hand, have long recognized that what's needed is thoroughgoing change in an electoral system that allows multiple seats in parliament from a single district and thus heightens candidates' demand for money to appeal to very specific constituencies.

The incessant demand for money to bestow gifts, repay favors, and win votes is met by businesses anxious to buy their way into positions of influence with the government.

Former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu came to office as an antidote to the public outcry against corruption generated by the long-running Recruit scandal of the late '80s. The Recruit Company, a media and publishing firm, greased the palms of LDP politicians with gifts of stocks. Mr. Kaifu belonged to a minor faction within the LDP that hadn't been tainted with scandal.

He tried to push through such reforms as single-member electoral districts. But stronger factions within the party, including that led by Mr. Miyazawa, weren't ready for this kind of thing. Kaifu was toppled last October.

Miyazawa is now coming forth with some moderate reforms of his own, responding to pressure from the current probe of political pay-offs from a now-bankrupt steelmaker. So far, the revelations haven't touched the prime minister or his faction, but another investigation, into the money doled out by a trucking firm, could reach much further.

The intertwining of money, politics, and business isn't unique to Japan, certainly. But over the years of rebuilding since World War II it became an engrained feature of the Japanese version of machine politics. Some might argue the flow of money into politics helped stabilize the system and allowed economic planners a longer horizon.

Perhaps, but today's Japan, with its wealth and world stature, doesn't need the prop of so-called "compensation politics," as many Japanese, including important business figures, recognize.

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