PUBLIC outrage over the wrist-slapping given to Japan's most powerful politician, Shin Kanemaru, has widened fractures inside the nation's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
The LDP's most dominant faction, still controlled by Mr. Kanemaru even after he was fined all of $1,666 for taking a $4 million payoff, is entangled in an internal but increasingly public power struggle within its 110-member ranks.
Public demands have escalated over the past two weeks for Kanemaru to resign from politics altogether. The longtime politician, known as "the don," has refused.
Since paying his fine Sept. 30 and avoiding direct questioning by prosecutors over the gangster-related scandal, Kanemaru has become the target of widespread protests, from street theater in Tokyo's Ginza district to the passage of resolutions by about 100 local government assemblies around Japan.
The most dramatic protests are in Tokyo's Shibuya Square where a large pink mask of the elderly Kanemaru and a group of hunger-strikers are enticing thousands of passersby to sign a petition of grievance over the so-called Sagawa scandal.
Not since the LDP broke a promise and imposed a sales tax in 1989 has Japan seen such public protests nationwide.
"There is deep-seated disaffection among the people about the Sagawa bribery scandal," says Gaishi Hiraiwa, head of the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations, or Keidanren.
In a poll of LDP members of the lower house by the Mainichi newspaper, 29 percent of 123 who responded said they want Kanemaru to resign his house seat; 24 percent want him to quit the party.
A group of first-term LDP members, risking party retaliation, openly demanded last week that Kanemaru resign. And a group of female opposition members in parliament are campaigning against Kanemaru.
After admitting on Aug. 27 that he had illegally received $4 million from the Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin trucking firm, Kanemaru appeared surprised that public criticism had risen instead of faded. He apparently had hoped for forgiveness based on a native Shinto custom known as misugi oshita, or cleansing oneself by confession.
But a public perception that he had evaded the law and received special treatment from prosecutors has evoked fears by many LDP members that the party will be punished at the polls. The Mainichi survey showed that only 7 percent of LDP members thought Kanemaru had done enough by resigning from the nominal post of LDP vice-president.
Leaders of Kanemaru's faction have been trying to buy time, hoping that the public would forget the scandal, especially since the next election is not due until early 1994. But the Japanese media, the opposition political parties, and a growing number within the LDP are keeping up the heat.
"Are they not aware of the depth of the current political crisis surrounding the LDP?" a recent Yomiuri editorial asked.
Also under public protest is alleged pressure by the faction on the prosecutors to go easy on Kanemaru and to discontinue a probe of other politicians who may have taken Sagawa money.
The position of justice minister has been held by a member of the faction since the arrest of its former chief, former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, for the Lockheed pay-off scandal in the 1970s. Half of the LDP members polled said the prosecutors had been unfair with Kanemaru compared to how they deal with the public.
"Not only has the LDP been unable to cleanse itself from the succession of scandals, it has taken an advantage of a defect in the law and used its power to evade and gloss over the issue by using obvious tactics," says Makoto Tanabe, the leader of the largest opposition party.
One LDP tactic was a promise made by Tamisuke Watanuki, secretary-general of the LDP, that the Kanemaru faction would delay its response on the affair until the next session of parliament, which is expected to open Nov. 2.
In the meantime, the faction has tried to formulate a collective leadership among seven of the more powerful young members, known as "the seven magistrates," in case Kanemaru should resign.
Ichiro Ozawa, Kanemaru's prot and a possible victim of the scandal, has spent the last few days trying to cut a deal for leadership among his factional rivals.
Without a strong leader, the Kanemaru faction could split apart, touching off a crisis for the government of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and perhaps leading to a realignment of Japanese politics.
Mr. Miyazawa, who relied on Kanemaru last year to become prime minister, has so far only expressed regret over the lenient penalty of Kanemaru.
Even if Kanemaru resigns, the opposition parties plan to call him to testify in parliament next month. Since Kanemaru is so powerful, whether he resigns all his posts is not an issue, says Seiichi Ota, an outspoken LDP member, because his ties to the party can never really be severed.