JUST three weeks before he plays host to the G-7 summit in Tokyo, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa is fighting for his political life.
Corruption has taken a toll on Mr. Miyazawa's ruling party, the Liberal Democrats, and reports of excessive personal wealth among leading politicians are adding fuel to the drive to oust him, perhaps as early as today.
Six opposition parties plan a no-confidence vote in parliament, playing on public discontent over the failure of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and specifically Miyazawa, to push through long-promised reforms of a political system that has helped keep the LDP in power for 37 years.
"If Japan's politics remain paralyzed, its economy and society will face considerable disorder," said an editorial in the leading newspaper, Yomiuri.
Both the Tokyo stock market and the yen have lost value in recent weeks, in part because of a perception that Japan's political leaders may be unable to resolve trade disputes with its partners in the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
In particular, a weakened Miyazawa could be unable to make any concessions to President Clinton in setting an agenda for United States-Japan trade talks over the next few years. The two leaders agreed in April to come up with an agenda in time for the July 7-9 summit.
The LDP leadership decided on Wednesday to try to head off the opposition's no-confidence vote by pushing for a vote on its most controversial electoral reform: single-seat constituencies. The decision brought fisticuffs among some LDP members.
Under the present multiseat proportional representation system, candidates of the same party run against each other in each district. This leads to races in which politicians run on promises of pork and benefits to voters rather than policy differences.
But opposition parties oppose a single-seat system because they believe it would allow the LDP to further dominate Japanese politics. Instead, they propose a mix of single-seats and proportional-seats, an idea endorsed by a key faction within the LDP led by former finance minister Tsutomu Hata.
His faction holds the balance in the expected vote against Miyazawa. Mr. Hata's faction was formed last year when the LDP's largest faction split after its leader, Shin Kanemaru, was found to have amassed gold bars, bonds, and cash from illegal political donations.
But beyond such blatant corruption, the public focused this week on the wealth of individual LDP members, who were forced under a new law to reveal their personal assets for the first time. The average LDP member has personal assets of $1.3 million, almost three times that of the average Japanese family. The wealthiest lawmaker, Takashi Sasagawa, had assets $41 million.
The LDP had hoped that a lapse of time and promises of reform would quell public discontent over nearly 4 years of reported corruption within the party. But in a poll by Nihon Keizai newspaper, 52.7 percent of Japanese said they want an election for the House of Representatives if a reform bill is not passed.
The debate on political reform was suppressed until last week out of consideration for the wedding of the crown prince.
If the vote against Miyazawa wins, he would be forced to call a general election before it is mandated in February 1994, creating political uncertainty during the G-7 summit.