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Japan takes its Italian disease to the doctor

THE public address system in central Tokyo chimed into life at 9.30am yesterday with three ascending musical notes, and the message: 'This is Minato ward local government information service. Do not be alarmed. Tomorrow is an election for the Lower House of the parliament. Let's all cast our votes. This was not an emergency anouncement.'

The omnipresent public address systems - grey speakers on the top of poles in residential areas - are intended to warn people of natural disasters: earthquakes, large fires, typhoons. And yesterday's message could indeed have been raising an alarm. Today's elections do represent an emergency for the country's entrenched political system.

The cabinet's popularity rating has shrunk to 6.7 per cent, and opinion polls show that 92 per cent disapprove of their government. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has formed every government since its formation in 1955, has split, and the cosy political structure of the past four decades looks as though a typhoon has hit it.

Japan today stands in the same position as Italy last year: huge cracks have appeared in the political consensus that dominated the country during the Cold War, and through these fissures all manner of corrupt practices, political bribes and links with organised crime are starting to show.

The 'licence to rule', accorded to the Christian Democrats in Italy and the Liberal Democrats in Japan in order to keep the communists at bay, has expired now that the latter are no longer perceived as a threat. What used to be regarded as the peccadilloes of the ruling parties are now revealed as systematic corruption on a grand scale.

In the past 12 months, a series of scandals has revealed that politicians from the LDP and the opposition parties have been routinely accepting huge bribes from firms in exchange for political favours. It has been established that Noboru Takeshita's election as prime minister in 1987 was assisted by the yakuza, Japan's organised crime syndicates.

And during the the election campaign of the past two weeks, the mayor of a large city in northern Japan has been shown to have been on the payroll of several large construction companies seeking public works contracts.

But there is no sense of alarm in the country. Since the war the system, or so-called 'steel triangle' of politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats, has built a cocoon around the country's 123 million people. Most have jobs, big incomes, some of the highest life expectancies and literacy rates in the world, and can walk home alone in the early hours with no fear of being assaulted. Unemployment at 2.5 per cent is the lowest in the developed world. And per capita GNP income of pounds 20,600 is double that in Britain. This system, however, has lost its main foundation pillars. Japan is no longer motivated by the desire to 'catch up' with the West's economy: it already has. And the need to maintain a bulwark against communism inside Japan, and in East Asia generally, has evaporated. China is now more of a threat as a low-cost manufacturer than an exporter of revolution, and North Korea, still a potential military threat, is bankrupt.

As Italy has discovered, removal of these pillars inevitably leads to the collapse of the whole structure. But the rate of change in Japan will be different. In Italy, they demonstrated in the streets, journalists exposed politicians and magistrates issued warrants to investigate a swathe of politicians and businessmen.

The press and legal system have less independence in Japan, and the idea that board members of leading Japanese car or electronics companies might be imprisoned is almost inconceivable. It will take longer for the old guard to be swept out and the new political system to fall into place.

But change is already happening. Three new conservative parties have been established, all led by people in their fifties, a new generation compared with the current LDP leaders and the Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, who is 73. And the corporate world, which has benefited for so long from the LDP's producer- oriented policies, is reviewing its allegiances; top business associations have said they will no longer support the LDP exclusively with political donations.

'Let's all cast our votes,' the address system declared yesterday morning. It should have added: 'This time it really matters.'

(Photograph omitted)