SHIN KANEMARU, a powerful back-room politician who could pick prime ministers or alter Japan's course with a few mumbled words, was forced to resign from parliament yesterday because of mounting public protests over a money scandal and a critical thumbs-down from big business.
The departure of the elderly "kingmaker" has left a temporary power vacuum within the strongest faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that he led, although younger politicians with no memories of World War II are vying to fill Mr. Kanemaru's shoes.
The entry of a new generation of leaders, many of them with strong nationalist views, could alter how Japan responds to demands of the United States and other nations on trade and military matters. Since being elected to parliament in 1958, Kanemaru often has led changes in Japan that were requested by Washington.
The sudden fall of Japan's political giant also leaves in doubt the future of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who was hand-picked by Kanemaru a year ago and has relied on him to arrange key support for LDP measures.
"Kanemaru was the guy who was able to get things through," says Robert Orr Jr., a professor at Temple University in Tokyo. "Who is Miyazawa going to turn to now?"
The scandal, known as Sagawa for the name of the trucking firm that gave $4 million to Kanemaru, could still claim other victims, possibly including Noboru Takeshita, a fellow LDP faction leader in parliament and a former prime minister who had to resign in 1989 during the last big money scandal, known as Recruit.
Opposition parties plan to grill faction leaders, as well as Kanemaru, when parliament opens next month. An opinion survey by Nippon Television yesterday revealed that 78 percent of Japanese polled say the resignation does not close the books on the scandal.
"The issue starts from now on," says former opposition leader Takako Doi. "It's wrong to think that because Kanemaru admitted to accepting 500 million yen [$4 million] and that he was only fined 200,000 yen [$1,666] that everything is over. We still have no idea what happened to that 500 million."
Kanemaru claims he gave the money to fellow faction members for an election campaign in 1990.
Kanemaru first admitted on Aug. 27 that he took the money but refused to be questioned directly by prosecutors. In a Japanese-style plea bargain, he was given lenient treatment - which was widely seen as favoritism by prosecutors.
After pressure was put on LDP leaders this week by Japanese business organizations, which themselves resent LDP demands for campaign money, some party members began to criticize Kanemaru in public. "Big business pulled the brakes in a little bit," said Dr. Orr.
In an official comment after the resignation, LDP secretary-general Tamisuke Watanuki said in a televised comment: "The party seriously responds to the fact that the incident frustrated the people and led to the loss of political confidence. We reflect on the fact that the incident gave rise to suspicions of our link with underground gangsters."
Just a few days before Kanemaru resigned, "there existed a dictatorial situation where [LDP members] were too intimidated to say anything, and this is the real problem," says Seiichi Ota, a LDP parliamentarian. "The fact that everyone believed Mr. Kanemaru had this great authority gave birth to this man of power, `Mr. Kanemaru'." He added that Kanemaru acted "behind a curtain" and that this style of power should now stop.
KANEMARU'S links to underworld figures were especially galling to Japanese. "This [resignation] shows that the price for angering the public is big," commentator Minoru Morita says.
And the influence of gangsters in Kanemaru's 110-member faction means that it "has lost the qualities for being a political party," says Mr. Morita. "The fact that each of the faction's politicians is searching for ways to have the faction survive means they still don't yet understand. The public no longer trusts them.
"There's a move in the faction to protect Mr. Takeshita by trying to put a stop to all this with [the resignation of] Mr. Kanemaru alone. But this would then continue to drag out the connection between politicians and gangsters, and ultimately destroy international trust [of Japan]."
Three men in Kanemaru's faction are competing to take over the leadership but many analysts suspect the faction may eventually split up, which would cause a major realignment of Japanese politics.
Ever since the LDP came to power in 1955, it has been split into factions that cut deals with each other but differed little in policy. "Perhaps the time will come for the era of factions to end," Mr. Ota says.
Kanemaru's prot, Ichiro Ozawa, is trying to make a deal with his faction rivals, Seiryoku Kajiyama and former Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.
Mr. Kajiyama, while now a rising star, was tarnished two years ago when he was justice minister after he compared foreign prostitutes in Japan to African-Americans in the US who, he said, "ruin the atmosphere of the neighborhoods they move into." The remark brought an outcry in the US and led to his ouster.