Japan: Rebels deliver fatal blow to old guard: The Diet vote could see Japan emerging to play a more active role in the world, writes Terry McCarthy in Tokyo

KIICHI MIYAZAWA

Mr Miyazawa appeared close to tears as the parliament ended his political career, writes Raymond Whitaker. He recovered from the Recruit shares-for-favours scandal to become prime minister in October 1991, when he was 72. Mr Miyazawa has never been popular with the public or his fellow politicians. A chilly intellectual who had served in 13 Cabinet posts, he could never convince party chiefs that he was the best man for the top job, until, in 1991, there seemed to be no alternative.

SHIN KANEMARU

Until earlier this year, when he was disgraced, Shin Kanemaru was the most powerful man in Japan. He had never been prime minister, but chose the last three holders of the office.

ICHIRO OZAWA

Sees himself as Japan's next political kingmaker. His prospects, once dimmed by a heart ailment and the disgrace of his mentor, Shin Kanemaru, now appear to be on the rise again.

TSUTOMU HATA

Ostensible leader of the LDP revolt against Kiichi Miyazawa, is a 'front man' for others, but he may continue that role as prime minister if a political realignment follows.

NOBORU TAKESHITA

Former prime minister, forced out by scandal in 1989, remained powerful as leader of the faction to which Mr Hata, Mr Ozawa and Mr Kanemaru belonged until late last year.

MUCH OF Japanese politics is conducted behind cloaks, and sometimes a dagger is produced. Last night, the Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, had a dagger implanted between his shoulderblades: the most remarkable thing is that he did not see it coming until it was too late.

The man who plunged the blade in was Tsutomu Hata, 57, the parliamentary leader of a rebel faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

But plots in Japanese politics run deep. The political assassination of Mr Miyazawa, 73, was orchestrated from a distance by Ichiro Ozawa, 50, maverick pretender to the leadership of Japan. And behind Mr Ozawa, deeper in the shadows, was Shin Kanemaru, the former godfather of Japanese politics, who was the first to conceive of a fundamental restructuring of Japanese politics.

Nothing is as it appears: the superficial reason for Mr Miyazawa's fall is that he failed to implement political reforms that were somehow to have put an end to money politics and the financial scandals that have recently rocked the political world. But deeper influences were at work, as Mr Hata and his boss, Mr Ozawa, took advantage of Mr Miyazawa's predicament to push their own interests. Clean, corruption-free politics was not what it was all about.

Rather, Mr Ozawa and his followers ultimately envisage a new political system for Japan which breaks away from the old Cold War politics and puts the country on course to play a more responsible and active role in the world. And this must mean a transfer of power from one generation of politicians to the next, with all the problems and resistance that entails.

It will be a long and gradual process - and it is not even guaranteed the rebels will succeed where so many have failed before. Japan does not embrace change easily. So momentous was the decision, that Mr Hata stalled until almost the last minute before instructing his faction to vote against the Prime Minister. 'A thorny way is waiting for us, but we must keep going,' Mr Hata said yesterday after finally rejecting peace overtures from Mr Miyazawa. 'We must not flinch.'

The LDP is a resilient organisation, and has faced down many threats in its 38-year history. It has also managed to stay in power without interruption for that long - a record of government more usually associated with Communist regimes. But with the end of the Cold War, everything has changed in East Asia, and the LDP's monopoly on power may be running out.

The party was set up in 1955 as a merger between the Liberals and the Democrats, two rival conservative parties who agreed to get together to prevent leftwingers from taking power at a time when Communism seemed on the advance throughout Asia. This political accommodation, which was strongly supported by the US, has persevered until today, and served Japan well as it built up its economy while sheltering behind US foreign policy.

But the world has changed, even if the LDP has not. Japan in 1955 was still a poor nation struggling to industrialise and catch up with the affluent West. Today Japan has the second largest economy in the world, with per capita GNP nearly double that of the UK. But it has not really woken up to its economic might, still playing a timid role on the world stage. And with Russia on its knees and China exporting goods, not revolution, Japan's anti-Communist stance is losing relevance.

Domestically the LDP is still bound to outdated interest groups to prop up its electoral support - witness the importance of the farmers' lobby, which prevents the government from importing even one grain of rice. For a country whose trade surplus is bigger than the entire GNP of most Asian rice- growing countries, this is lunacy. A country that leads the world in cars and electronics should not have its hands tied by a diminishing group of pension- age rice farmers.

The first man to lay plans for a radical change of the political system was Mr Kanemaru, who was most recently in the news when he was arrested earlier this year for tax evasion after millions of dollars in cash and gold were found in his possession. Up to that time, he was the most powerful man in Japanese politics. He had appointed the previous three prime ministers, was the party's most efficient fundraiser from big business, and had useful backroom links with opposition parties.

In 1988 Mr Kanemaru first floated the idea of political realignment with some members of the opposition while he was negotiating the passage of an unpopular consumption tax through the Diet, or parliament. The idea was to take some of the more moderate members of the Socialists and a portion of the smaller opposition parties, and combine them with more progressive and outward-looking politicians in the LDP. On the way, the elder generation of LDP politicians - who are in hock to the bureaucrats and the farming lobby, and who shun any active international role for Japan - would be sidelined.

Mr Miyazawa, who grew up in the shadow of the US and meticulously avoided taking any political initiatives during his prime ministership, is a prime example of the type of politician that Mr Kanemaru and Mr Ozawa wanted to replace.

Mr Kanemaru intended to direct this transformation from behind the scenes through his protege, Mr Ozawa, whom he had groomed for leadership. He had even apparently built up a war chest to finance his new party - this was the money found when he was arrested in March, some political commentators say.

One theory is that the LDP elders leaked information about Mr Kanemaru's 'conspicuous wealth' to prosecutors to try to head off his looming challenge to the established party.

Mr Kanemaru's subsequent disgrace forced Mr Ozawa also to adopt a low profile. And so, in time-honoured Japanese fashion, Mr Ozawa picked Mr Hata as his front man. Mr Hata began forming his own faction dedicated to 'political reform' within the LDP last December. It drew its first blood last night.

(Photographs omitted)

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