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Disgraced politicans come back 'cleansed': Japan's election serves as a ritual purification for figures tainted by corruption as they or their nominees return

THE elections on Sunday acted as a ritual 'purification' for all that was dirty in Japanese politics - at least that is what candidates associated with some of the more egregious corruption scandals in recent history were saying.

The term used is misogi, which means to purify oneself with water at a river, and those politicians who were re-elected interpret their good fortune as proof of 'misogi by democracy'. Such is the Japanese way.

Even Japan's miserably unpopular Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, declared himself chastened by the election result, although for the time being he has refused to resign. With a popularity rating that had fallen to just 6.7 per cent on the eve of the vote, Mr Miyazawa led the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to its first ever loss of a parliamentary majority.

He said yesterday: 'I believe I have to straighten myself up by taking the election's results as an indication of tough public criticism and indignation.'

Politicians in Japan have a long tradition of resigning to take the blame for some impropriety and then popping up several years later proclaiming they have been purified and will dedicate themselves to the voters and to the country. Then along comes another scandal, and the cycle begins again. The idea of a politician's career being finished by a scandal - such as that of Richard Nixon after Watergate or John Profumo after the Christine Keeler affair - is inconceivable in Japan.

Voters proved again that local considerations usually outweigh matters of principle, and turned out in their thousands to elect politicians whose names might have been dragged in the dirt by the Tokyo media, but who are regarded as loveable rogues in their home towns. And the principle of misogi, originally a ritual from the Shinto religion in which people went down to a river to purify themselves with water, had not lost its magic.

Three politicians elected on Sunday were Noboru Takeshita, who was linked with the Recruit and Sagawa scandals; Makiko Tanaka, whose father, Kakuei, was the grandmaster of corrupt money politics in Japan when he was prime minister; and Shomei Yokouchi, who took over the seat of Shin Kanemaru, the former 'godfather' of Japanese politics who was arrested for tax evasion in March.

Mr Takeshita had said repeatedly during his campaign that the election would 'prove' that his record was clean. Tosen shite misogi da ('If I am elected I will be purified'), was his catch cry. There was quite a lot to purify. Mr Takeshita was forced to resign as prime minister in 1989 after the Recruit shares-for-favours scandal, and it has recently been revealed that his election to prime minister in 1987 was assisted by an organised crime syndicate. He has also been linked with the Sagawa political bribery scandal. True to form, he won 105,296 votes on Sunday in his constituency in Shimane prefecture, and topped the poll.

Makiko Tanaka also topped the poll in her constituency. Her father was felled by the Lockheed scandal in 1976, but not before he had given his home area more bullet trains, expressways and other public works than it could use.

Ms Tanaka campaigned largely on the strength of her father's name, and said her victory showed 'the very deep sense of human relationship and solidarity' between her father and the local people.

And in Yamanashi prefecture a newcomer, Shomei Yokouchi, won the seat vacated by the Shin Kanemaru, the former LDP godfather who resigned last year and is to go on trial later this week on charges of massive tax evasion. Mr Kanemaru's strength came from his ability to raise funds from the construction industry in Japan. It should not come as much of a surprise, therefore, that Mr Yokouchi was, until a month ago, a senior bureaucrat with the Ministry of Construction.

Yesterday's graphic illustrating the results of the Japanese election should have contained a credit for the pictures of the party leaders which we obtained from Yomiuri Shimbun. We apologise for this omission.

(Photograph omitted)