Japan's Ruling LDP Pushes Younger, Reform Image

Cabinet shake-up follows bribery scandal that cut into party support

THE battered state of Japanese politics was captured simply in a newspaper ad last month. It read: "Wanted: New Politicians."

The ad was placed by the reformist Japan New Party, whose start-up earlier this year has led it to advertise for candidates. But the party wants only people who will "demonstrate their anger at current politics" and have "no connection with crime organizations."

Such sentiments, reflected widely in opinion polls, forced the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to do something unusual last week. The LDP's leaders decided to put younger, cleaner, more reformist politicians in a new Cabinet lineup. The youngest, Hajime Funada, is 39 years old and was chosen as head of economic planning. One of the more reformist, Yohei Kono, was made chief Cabinet secretary; he once split with the LDP in the 1970s after the Lockheed bribery scandal.

The new Cabinet is designed to help the party recover from its near-record unpopularity, even though it is unlikely to be dislodged after holding power for 37 years. The unusual step of naming lesser but more publicly acceptable politicians to run the government was made easier because the largest faction in the party, which had dominated decisionmaking in Japan for two decades, split up last month.

The faction was divided after it lost its leader, political kingpin Shin Kanemaru, in August and could not agree on a successor. Mr. Kanemaru was forced to quit after admitting that his secretary took $4 million from the Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin trucking firm.

"I received the money at a basement garage," admitted the secretary, Masahisa Haibara, in testimony before parliament last week. The money, so bulky that three shopping bags were required to carry it, was allegedly distributed to 60 faction members for use in the February 1990 general election.

The Sagawa scandal has also badly tainted Kanemaru's fellow faction leader, former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who is also under pressure to resign from politics. The LDP's seven factions exist primarily as conduits for distributing hefty "contributions" from business.

The LDP's urgency to present a reformist image was also driven by the possibility that prosecutors will nail other LDP politicians who took the Sagawa money.

"The people are angry," the new justice minister, Masaharu Gotoda, said in a speech. "It's important to take definitive action. But it will not be easy."

Tsutomu Hata, who led the split from the largest faction to set up his own, says he wants to take "a new route in order to break out of the tight corner that [Japan's] politics have been driven into." He even hinted that he may start a new party.

WITH the LDP's seven factions now more or less equal, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, leader of his own faction, had a relatively free hand in picking a Cabinet, rather than having to kowtow to the once-dominant Kanemaru-Takeshita faction.

The remnant of that faction, now nominally led by Keizo Obuchi, only gained three of 21 Cabinet slots. It now ranks as the fourth-largest faction, controlling about 16 percent of LDP parliamentary members compared with its previous 28 percent.

Yet despite the new Cabinet lineup, little has changed in the top party hierarchy, which can still pull the strings of government. Two of the top lieutenants chosen by Mr. Miyazawa to serve under him in the party - Secretary-General Seiroku Kajiyama and General Council Chairman Koko Sato - were implicated in scandals of the past or present. Miyazawa himself resigned as finance minister in 1988 over the stocks-for-favors Recruit scandal.

These older, more powerful politicians are hesitant to pursue reform of the multiseat electoral system that helps breed Japan's "money politics." Without the kind of reform that would introduce single-seat constituencies, the party may never wean itself from the need for large campaign war chests or reduce the role of factions, analysts say.

Public outrage toward the LDP, which helped drive Kanemaru out of parliament, may linger despite the new Cabinet. An opinion poll by the Kyodo News Service last weekend revealed that public support for Miyazawa had fallen to 16.1 percent, the second-lowest rating for any prime minister in three decades.

The new Cabinet is expected to face difficult decisions on whether to open Japan's rice market, how much to stimulate the economy with a new government budget, and how to respond to expected trade demands by the incoming Clinton administration.

The decision on opening the rice market, which would weaken the LDP's rural support, will likely come in a few weeks as the Uruguay Round of world trade talks appear to be winding down. In the past few days, Miyazawa and other top leaders have hinted that Japan will need to concede on the rice issue.

"We must never spoil [world trade talks]," Miyazawa said in a press conference Dec. 12.

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