Sleaze scandal Japanese-style: let's forget it

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IN ANY OTHER country, it would be the story of the decade, the stuff of tumbling governments and popular outrage. The leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world, a 60-year old husband and father, is accused of conducting a long-running affair with a married woman. And not only is she a foreigner, from a communist country traditionally antagonistic to his own, but she is allegedly an active intelligence agent.

He confesses that he took the woman out. Even when given the opportunity, he conspicuously fails to deny that they had a sexual relationship, and he admits that he has no idea whether she is a spy or not. The scandal is raised in parliament, articles appear in the press - and the whole business is quietly forgotten...

The story of the Japanese Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, and the Chinese spy is in every way remarkable, but almost as striking as the allegations themselves is the indifference with which they have been treated.

Over the past two weeks, a steady trickle of magazine stories have raised the remarkable suggestion that the Japanese government is being held to ransom at the highest level. Japan's weekly magazines are as prone to exaggeration and sensationalism as the British tabloids, but last week the story was given an authoritative treatment in a respectable organ, Aera.

The story begins in 1978 when Ryutaro Hashimoto was the 41-year old minister of health and welfare. The woman, referred to as Mrs A, was a translator for the Chinese health ministry, and the two met during official visits in both countries. In 1985 she came to Tokyo with her new husband, a cultural attache named Mu Shao Lin. The two later divorced; a few years later Mrs A married a Japanese, and took on his nationality.

This much is not disputed, even by Mr Hashimoto. When an opposition MP named Shingo Nishimura raised the matter in the Diet, he admitted having a friendship with the woman. Pressed by reporters, he admitted there was "a personal relationship".But asked whether it was a "deep" one, he equivocated: "What do you mean by deep? I don't want to answer a question like that. Anyway she is happily married now." Of the widespread reports that she works for Chinese intelligence, he simply said,"I have no idea whether she is a spy."

Magazines talk of meetings in Tokyo hotels, gifts including a transparent negligee, A's childhood at a special school for future spies... And according to "government sources" in Aera, their relation- ship, A's move to Japan, and even her marriage to Mu Shao Lin may have been carefully planned from the start to gain a hold over Mr Hashimoto.

Shingo Nishimura has his suspicions. "After the Tiananmen incident," he says, "he was one of the first VIPs to visit China. He strongly urged resuming yen loans. When he visited China in September, there were so many issues to discuss - human rights, territorial disputes, expansionism. He didn't mention any of them. I cannot help suspecting China has something on him."