Japanese PM rocked by brothel arrest scandal

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The police record is sketchy but even after 42 years it tells its own story. In February 1958, a 20-year-old man was arrested in one of Tokyo's red-light districts.

The police record is sketchy but even after 42 years it tells its own story. In February 1958, a 20-year-old man was arrested in one of Tokyo's red-light districts.

He was caught in a raid on a brothel, taken in for violation of the Prostitution Prevention Law, and fingerprinted. But he had a promising future and a week after the arrest police decided not to press charges.

There it might have rested, forgotten in the archives of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Except that the man's future was more promising than anyone imagined. Today Yoshiro Mori is Prime Minister of Japan and the case of the 1958 arrest file is threatening to bring down him and his government.

The scandal, which reached its most critical phase in court last week, began in May. Mr Mori, who succeeded to the premiership in April after Keizo Obuchi had a stroke, was already in difficulties. He was known as a sharp operator who shot his mouth off. In Nagatacho, Tokyo's Westminster, they say he has "the brain of a shark, the heart of a flea, and the gonads of a seal".

The shark is known for cunning and the flea for its puniness. But the seal, in Japanese animal similes, is the equivalent of the randy old goat.

So no one was especially surprised when The Truth of the Rumour magazine ran a story about the record of Mr Mori's arrest. He denied it and demanded a retraction. When the magazine refused, he brought a libel action. When asked about the allegations by opposition MPs, he said: "I am fighting for my honour. What would you do if it were you?"

An allegation about an alleged 40-year old embarrassment has thus been transformed into a test of the Prime Minister's honesty. Satsuki Eda, of the Democratic Party, who put the question, said: "If he had admitted it, there would have been no long- term damage. But he denied it in the Diet and, if it turns out that he lied, then the matter is very serious."

In the four hearings so far Mr Mori's lawyers have not clinched the matter. Yasunori Okadome, editor of The Truth of the Rumour, admitted he did not have a copy of the police file, nor had he seen it. He said the information was passed on "from a person connected with the police". Last month the judge invited the police to publish their files; they declined.

Katsuhiko Yoshinaga, a lawyer for Truth, said: "If the record doesn't exist, then why don't the police simply say, 'It doesn't exist'? This shows that what was reported was true. I'm 100 per cent convinced that we'll win."

The magazine's defence is weakened because it alsoprinted scurrilous allegations about Mr Mori's marriage, his daughter-in-law and other female acquaintances, which appear to be unsubstantiated.

But the timing could hardly be worse for Mr Mori's Liberal Democratic Party. In summer a senior member, Eiichi Nakao, was charged with taking bribes. In July Kimitaka Kuze, who was in charge of cleaning up the finance industry, resigned after receiving questionable payments from a bank. Last week another magazine ran a story about Mr Mori's most senior sidekick, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Hidenao Nakagawa. The article included an interview with a former mistress who reminisced about the couple's drug binges.

Sex scandals in themselves are rarely regarded as serious enough to end a career in Japanese politics. Only one Prime Minister had to resign as a result of one - Sosuke Uno, whose geisha mistress spilt the beans in 1989. Even then the outrage focused not on Mr Uno lying to his wife or on leaving himself open to blackmail. The greatest scandal was, as thegeisha indignantly disclosed, that he had not paid her generously enough.