TALES of cash bribes dispensed in shopping carts and of deals struck between crime leaders and politicians are keeping prosecutors and the press in hot pursuit of a scandal that has only slightly rattled Japan's ruling party.
But largely absent so far from this spreading money scandal, known as Sagawa, is any public outrage that might seriously threaten the long-entrenched Liberal Democratic Party.
"The LDP, which is stained by `money politics,' has been allowed to hang on to power, and the entire public is held responsible for this frightening situation," says political analyst Yoshimasa Matsuoka. "The Japanese public itself is being questioned."
LDP leaders are so confident of public apathy that Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, himself tainted by the Recruit scandal of 1988-89, tried to stop the resignation last month of top politician Shin Kanemaru, who admitted taking a $4 million "donation" from the now-defunct Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin Company, a trucking firm that sought government favors.
In all, about a dozen top party leaders have been identified as accepting more than $16 million from the Sagawa company, according to press reports based on leaks from prosecutors.
Two politicians, Mr. Kanemaru and Niigata prefectural governor Kiyoshi Kaneko, have already been forced to resign for taking Sagawa money, after initially denying it.
Last April, the range of payoffs was revealed by the Sagawa group chairman, Kiyoshi Sagawa, who claimed in a television interview that money was given to aides of 280 parliamentarians. Prosecutors also have indicated that some top LDP leaders used a crime syndicate, Inagawa-kai, for political purposes. Little public anger
Such information, however, appeared to have little effect on Japanese voters, who gave a big boost to LDP candidates in a July 26 upper-house election, although voter turnout was unusually low at 50.7 percent. One recent opinion survey reveals a higher public support for the LDP than three months ago.
Prosecutors, too, concerned about the possible effects of their probe on the July election, reportedly halted the investigation for several months.
In a move seen as "damage control," LDP members blame many of their problems on the press for reporting leaks from prosecutors. Libel suits against media have been threatened by two ministers and one former prime minister.
Opposition parties, normally eager to jump on LDP scandals, appear to have toned down their usual attacks in parliament. One reason may be that Ryoichi Yasutsune, a member of the largest opposition party, the Socialists, was expelled last spring after admitting he received money from a Sagawa Kyubin affiliate.
The nation's top business leader, Gaishi Hiraiwa of the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations, said Monday that the allegation of payoffs should not delay parliament's implementation of a government plan to boost the faltering economy.
The lack of public outrage over Sagawa is startling to some Japanese observers.
"There is probably no other nation in the world where the citizens place as much respect on the stability of politics, or, more precisely, recognize that politics is the one profession that has no ties with ethics," says Asahi newspaper commentator Yasuhiro Kobayashi.
Under Japanese law, a politician must report cash contributions of over 1 million yen ($8,130). But politicians claim that they need far more than that amount to run campaigns and to provide "gifts" to constituents.
"Because a strong system of distribution of benefits has been established, covering everything from regional politics to corporate society under the domination of a conservative party throughout the postwar era, a minimal amount of corruption will not produce the energy required to overturn that system from its roots," states Mr. Kobayashi. Revived power scuffle
So far, the Sagawa scandal has not been a replay of the 1988-89 Recruit scandal, which felled one prime minister and several other officials. Still, the resignation of Kanemaru, who heads the largest LDP faction, has revived a battle for influence among up-and-coming LDP leaders who hope to take over the party by the mid-1990s.
Official calls for reform of the political system have been revived, although little is expected soon. The prime minister directed government officials to come up with a basic reform plan by November while Home Affairs Minister Masajuro Shiokawa said there needed to be a precise definition of what a political donation is.
Public attention on the scandal will likely be heightened on Sept. 22, the day when the former head of the Tokyo branch of Sagawa is scheduled to go on trial. He has been helping prosecutors by naming various politicians who received money.