Japan's Ruling Party Faces Scandal Probe
Opposition-backed inquest into alleged corruption of Liberal Democrats threatens party's election prospects
A SPOTLIGHT of publicity will strike into the corruption within Japan's ruling party starting today. Parliament opens a probe of one of two scandals rocking the nation's politics.
Public prosecutors are already well into unraveling both of the latest cases of influence-peddling by members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), even making several arrests and leaking tidbits of taint to the Japanese news media.
But that has not deterred the opposition parties - some of whose members may be implicated themselves - from trying to put LDP officials on a televised hot-seat just before a series of elections. A 15-day boycott of parliament by the opposition forced the LDP to relent to the probe, which may bring in a parade of the accused.
Today's drilling of two LDP members will attempt to expose the lesser of the two scandals, in which bribes were allegedly given by steelframe maker Kyowa Co. to former Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki and a former minister, Jun Shiozaki. Both men are due to testify today; television cameras may be barred.
One other LDP member, Fumio Abe, was already indicted this month in the unfolding Kyowa scandal, which threatens to unseat Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. All three men were close Miyazawa associates. Mr. Abe was his chief fund-raiser.
The opposition charges Mr. Miyazawa with using Kyowa money to pay LDP members to support him last fall when he became prime minister.
"How long will the ruling party continue to repeat this cycle of scandals?" asks Socialist Party chief Makoto Tanabe.
Last December, the opposition forced the prime minister to adjourn parliament after it probed his role in the last big bribery case, the so-called Recruit scandal of 1988-89, in which Miyazawa had to resign as finance minister.
"The cleaning up of politics, to our regret, is still the biggest problem in this country," stated a Feb. 14 Asahi newspaper editorial. An opinion survey by Jiji Press found more than half of those polled disapprove of both Miyazawa and the LDP.
But the second scandal, known as the "Sagawa saga," has more ominous implications than the Kyowa affair. Even one of its protagonists, Yasuo Matsuzawa, head of Heiwado Co., told the Mainichi newspaper that the arrests of the leaders of the accused Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin trucking firm "will spell the end for Japan."
Anywhere from 130 to 200 members of parliament were offered $800 million by the Sagawa company to help it become Japan's second largest parcel-delivery company, according to newspaper reports. Some LDP members are already confessing links to Sagawa.
"I heard that five politicians had each received more than 5 billion yen [$40 million]. At least five people connected with political circles visited Tokyo Sagawa every day," Mr. Matsuzawa told Mainichi. He also told Asahi newspaper that the head of Tokyo Sagawa "had a Cabinet minister appointed by a single telephone call in front of me. [He] asked an LDP boss."
Prosecutors arrested Hiroyasu Watanabe, former president of Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin, and the firm's ex-managing director, Jun Saotome, on Feb. 14 on suspicion of violating a commercial law in providing nearly $4.1 billion in loans and debt guarantees to companies and individuals. Matsuzawa was also arrested. About $781 million of the money was reportedly channeled to companies with ties to a crime syndicate, the Inagawa-kai.
OPPOSITION parties want to question more than two dozen scandal-related witnesses. Such exposure would further delay passage of the 1992-93 budget beyond March 31, damaging the prospects of both the LDP and Miyazawa. The party lost badly in a Feb. 9 by-election for an upper house seat. It fears losing two more in March, and holds dim hopes of doing well in nationwide elections in July.
As the LDP has done in the past when threatened, it promises reform. Miyazawa, who has scoffed at changing an election system that thrives on money and is skewed to rural voters, promised on Sunday to come up with a reform package - in nine months.
"It would be very revolutionary for a ruling party to actually initiate political reform," says Takeo Nishioka, LDP member and former Miyazawa associate. "Reform would endanger its power."
But the LDP could fall from power unless it reforms the electoral system, warns a top industrialist, Gaishi Hiraiwa. Former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu was felled by his own party last year after he pushed too hard for reform.