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Japan's Kabuki Politics

JAPANESE politics, we are told, is in a massive sea change driven by three forces: the ethical aversion to money politics, the emergence of new political leaders with different policy priorities, and the waning fear of communism, the glue that supposedly held the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) together for almost four decades.

That story bears about as much resemblance to reality as a Kabuki play. Once again, we want to see Japanese politics in American terms as we gullibly swallow Tokyo's headlines and miss the revealing subtext.

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The appearance of a sea change in Japanese politics has been brought about by three developments: the Shin Kanemaru scandal, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's sudden retreat from political reform, and defections from the ruling party and the formation of new political parties.

The realities are substantially different. The changes are not about a fundamental redistribution of power in Japanese politics. They are new tactics to retain old power and pursue established priorities.

Some years ago, Mr. Kanemaru gave us a preview of precisely how it would work. He proposed splitting the LDP into two parties. The first, a new left-center party, would absorb all of the small moderate parties in the Diet, plus the more centrist elements of the Socialists. The second would comprise a right-center party of conservatives ultra-nationalists. Thus, any serious political challenge to the ruling order would be prevented, be it from the nationalist right, the socialist left, or the nationalist left.

These two parties would agree on the basics of Japanese domestic and foreign policy: support for big business and membership in the United States-led economic West. But more importantly, they would also give angry Japanese something to vote for or against, as if their votes actually meant something. In reality, with all of the opposition parties swallowed up by a reconfigured LDP dressed in new names, they don't.

The two parties are personified in the leadership of the new, larger Japan Renewal Party (Shinseito) and the smaller Vanguard Party (Sakigake). Shinseito bears no resemblance to a "clean government" club. All of its members are from the old Takeshita (descendant of Tanaka) faction of the LDP, a group that stood second to none in Japanese money politics. The number two official is Ichiro Ozawa, one of Kanemaru's most prominent proteges, and the Brutus to former reform-minded Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.

Indicatively, Japan's large construction firms - prime supporters of Kanemaru and the money politics - have announced publicly that they will not contribute to the LDP in the coming elections but support the defectors.

Miyazawa was dumped for reasons other than the outrage of dedicated "reformers." First, he caused Kanemaru and his proteges in the Takeshita faction of the LDP to lose face by authorizing the investigations that ultimately discredited and embarrassed them.

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Second, Miyazawa's reform bill called for each district to elect only one member to the lower house of the legislature - they now elect multiple members. That would have altered the status quo by shifting power and turning the loose alliance between the quasi-independent factions of the LDP into open warfare. Also, it would have radically reduced the number of seats held by opposition parties.

Miyazawa's reforms would have damaged many of Japan's established power brokers, changed the strategies needed to win elections, and might have even opened the way to a real two-party system in Tokyo where the parties differed on policy - especially domestic policy.

The last set of factors at work in this charade are economic. The LDP was losing its magic touch with the Japanese economy. There were fears that the Americans would take advantage of it at the Tokyo summit to extract serious trade concessions. Some felt that Miyazawa, long suspected of being too close to the Americans, might even go so far as to modify established trade barriers that protect important voting blocs in Japan. Many members of the old guard thus stood to gain from shifting the focus of the next election away from the economy. In doing so, they would also ensure a Japanese summit presence so weakened that no concessions could be made on trade. Even foreigners could hardly expect bold summit policy from a lame duck government.

All of this may strike some as too conspiratorial. Perhaps. But events prove otherwise.

In the recent Tokyo elections the Socialist Party was the big loser. New party gains came at their expense; even the LDP picked up several more assembly seats from them. The Clinton administration had to abandon expectations for any significant economic accommodation from Japan at the G-7 summit. Indeed, the president has even expressed sympathy with the political changes occurring in Japan, saying he is confident that they are in the long-run American interest. And he has counseled patience on pressing bilateral economic issues, a script that the Japanese could not have written better because it reduces trade pressures and buys them more time.

Finally, the competition between the two parties for the money that lubricates Japanese politics has already begun to strengthen dependence on its sources, not lessen it. This Sunday's election may only be a change of scenery.

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