Cabinet shuffle alters Japan's power balance

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THE Japanese Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, announced a cabinet reshuffle yesterday, but the political world and the Japanese media were little interested in seeking signs of a policy shift or a fresh political direction which the new cabinet members might initiate.

In stark contrast to the United States, where each new appointee by President-elect Bill Clinton is analysed in the press for their past record and political priorities, no such expectations exist in the world's second richest country.

Instead, commentators in Japan focused almost exclusively on the factional allegiance of each new minister, and the extent to which one faction might have gained slightly in power over its rivals within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). It might sound like generals preparing for war by discussing which football team they each support, but the network of factional allegiances is the very foundation of Japanese politics, with a history that predates the current parliamentary system by centuries.

In yesterday's reshuffle the Foreign Minister, Michio Watanabe, and the Agriculture Minister, Masami Tanabu, both at the heart of Japan's struggle to resist opening up its rice market, were retained. All other portfolios were changed, including that of the Finance Ministry, which is now to be led by Yoshiro Hayashi, a political ally of Mr Miyazawa. The most notable feature of the new lineup, however, is the political neutering of the formerly dominant Takeshita faction.

Cabinet reshuffles are almost an annual ritual, carried out in order to spread more widely the lucrative ministerial posts between the different factions. The fact that a continuing scandal is revealing links between the LDP and gangsters, that the Japanese economy is in its worst downturn since 1973, and that Mr Miyazawa's personal popularity has fallen to 12 per cent in the latest opinion polls seemed to be unconnected to the formation of the new cabinet. Faction politics were supreme.

Factional strife has increased recently with the splitting of the Takeshita faction, which had been the most powerful within the LDP until its leader, Shin Kanemaru, was forced to resign in October for receiving illegal donations. A power struggle within the faction ensued, and a group led by Mr Kanemaru's protege, Ichiro Ozawa, broke away. Mr Ozawa's group announced yesterday morning they would form a new faction, the 'Reform Forum 21'.

Mr Miyazawa, who heads his own, smaller faction within the LDP, took advantage of this disarray to strip the Takeshita faction of all the powerful ministries it had controlled - finance, international trade and industry, education, justice and transport - and to distribute the spoils among other rival factions. The two halves of the Takeshita faction were thrown less powerful portfolios as consolation prizes.

The LDP now has six main factions, or habatsu. They are set up as lobbying groups in the competition for the prime ministership and other powerful cabinet posts. Their relative strengths depend on their number of parliamentary members and their fund-raising abilities, from big business, which translate into votes.

Many Japanese blame factional competition for the country's system of money politics. But despite a string of political bribery scandals since the foundation of the LDP in 1955, the faction system has proved very resilient. After the Lockheed bribery scandal in the 1970s the factions officially disbanded. But the same groups reappeared as 'study groups', and soon even the pretence of the name change was dropped.

The system of factions has its roots in feudal times in Japan, when individual samurai pledged their loyalty to their clan, in exchange for which they received protection and support from the clan when necessary. By contrast each clan's level of loyalty to the central government, or Shogunate, was highly arbitrary.

Confidence at new low, page 19