AN unusual spectacle is unfolding in Japan: Two major political parties are facing off in a loud debate over a matter of an important policy.
Analysts are warning that the parties' handling of the issue could determine which one will win coming general elections, expected by late spring 1996.
Just six months after police began a massive investigation of the Aum Shinri Kyo sect on suspicion of kidnapping, nerve-gas production, and other iniquities, Japan's parliament has begun a revision of the country's law on religious organizations. The new measures would make it easier for the government to monitor such groups.
At first glance, the debate suggests that two-party politics and open policy discussions - long-sought goals of political reformers - have blossomed in this land of opaque decisionmaking. But closer scrutiny indicates that this contest is more about pre-election maneuvering than official oversight of religion.
''I very much regret,'' says Tokyo University political scientist Takeshi Sasaki, ''that this very important issue is so connected to [political] considerations.''
Immediately after Aum Shinri Kyo - the name translates to Aum Supreme Truth - emerged as the key suspect in the March 20 nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system and a string of related crimes, many here began to wonder how and why their government had let them down.
In retrospect it has seemed that police mishandled investigations of earlier incidents that should have alerted them to nefarious practices at several Aum facilities. In a country where painstaking official scrutiny and detailed regulations are synonymous with government, people have asked exactly which members of their vaunted bureaucracy were asleep at their desks while Aum allegedly plotted to take over the country.
The police have yet to answer their critics, but the bureaucrats tasked with overseeing religious organizations were quick to respond that they have little legal authority to investigate groups that arouse suspicions. There is good reason for their lack of power.
Japan witnessed decades of brutal religious repression before the turn of the century and in the years leading up to World War II. Much of the heavy-handed state interference was intended to bolster emperor worship and stifle dissent during Japan's years of militarism. The post-war Constitution clearly instructs the government to stay out of religious affairs and keep its hands off religious groups.
But the Aum case suggested to some officials and politicians that the government's approach has been too hands-off. An advisory group to the Education Ministry, under whose purview religions fall, suggested last month that the religious-organizations law be revised to allow the government to investigate suspicious groups, or at least to request permission to investigate them.
The group recommended having the government oversee organizations that operate in more than one prefecture and requiring them to disclose financial information.
Partly because of the memories of religious persecution, the proposed changes immediately provoked controversy. Dissenting members of the group - a rare species in consensus-minded Japan - immediately charged that the chairman had railroaded certain measures through.
Leaders of religious groups have spoken against the proposed revisions, saying the government should take more time to review the law and be more careful to avoid changes that could one day mean a revival of official repression.
Nonetheless, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the dominant member of the ruling coalition, is pushing hard for these revisions. This enthusiasm may arise from concerns other than public safety.
It happens that one of Japan's largest religious groups, a Buddhist organization called Soka Gakkai, is a major supporter of the opposition New Frontier Party (NFP). As political analyst Minoru Morita observes, ''The ruling parties are much more focused on Soka Gakkai than on the prevention of cults like Aum.''
Founded in 1930, Soka Gakkai offered a more egalitarian and accessible form of Buddhism. It was criticized in the 1950s and '60s for coercive proselytizing, but its spokesmen say these practices ''have been toned down for decades.'' It founded the ''Komei'' or Clean Government Party in 1964, whose members are now part of the NFP.
Although Japan's political world is in a state of flux at the moment, the NFP is enjoying some momentum. Led by one-time LDP members who left the party promising to make politicians more responsive to voters, less tied to business interests, and more effective in running the bureaucracy, the NFP has had a hard time coalescing into an organized, like-minded group.
But the NFP did surprisingly well in recent elections for the upper house of parliament, and the party seems confident about its chances in the more important lower house races.
The Soka Gakkai, which claims a membership of 8 million households in Japan, is said to influence the votes of perhaps 6 million people.
Not surprisingly, NFP leaders are stridently opposing the proposed revisions, charging the LDP is moving too fast on a sensitive issue for political reasons. ''It's a very political maneuver,'' says Isamu Ueda, an NFP member of parliament who is supported by Soka Gakkai. ''I think we need a more thorough discussion and that we should be more careful.''
The LDP seems to be gambling that forcing the NFP to defend the interests of Soka Gakkai and other religious groups will embarrass the party at a time when at least some religions have gotten a bad name in Japan.
A political game
The NFP, on the other hand, apparently hopes the LDP will alienate its own religious supporters and be criticized for coming down too hard on religions. Analysts say either party could win the lower house races, but says it is unlikely that either party will take a majority of the 500 seats in the house.
Even so, the LDP is eager to win the lower house races outright so it no longer has to govern in a coalition. Now the LDP shares power with Socialists and members of a smaller third party.
Oddly enough, says Tokyo University's Professor Sasaki, the biggest loser in this contest may turn out to be the Socialists. He notes that the Socialists, when they stood in the opposition to the LDP, were the traditional opponents of any government interference in religious affairs.
But their role in the coalition has apparently silenced them. ''This is a very critical issue for the Socialists,'' he explains. ''If they do not speak out, the Socialists will quickly lose their relevance in this country.''