Japanese General Election: King of dirty politics hits back on home turf: The controversial Noboru Takeshita is not finished yet, writes Terry McCarthy in Kakeya

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NOBORU TAKESHITA is one of the dirtiest names in Japanese politics these days, which is quite a distinction given the extent of recent scandals. So dirty, in fact, that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has actually ditched him after 35 years in parliament, and he is running in next week's general election as an independent candidate. But the man who has been linked with organised crime and systematic corruption in Tokyo is regarded as something close to a god in his home prefecture of Shimane.

In his native town of Kakeya, in the mountains 350 miles west of Tokyo, people lower their voices when they speak his name. His family runs a sake business in an old building at the foot of a bamboo-covered hill - the name 'Takeshita' means 'below the bamboos'. As he repeatedly emphasises, he is a man from their soil. He talks about reversing the flow of young people from rural areas like Shimane to the big cities. No one doubts the 69-year-old veteran will be re-elected, and the odds are that he will top the polls again.

'The environment was harsh for me during the past year,' he told a crowd of his supporters in Shimane this week. 'I was criticised for things I had nothing to do with. I will compensate you during my entire political life for causing you concern.'

Mr Takeshita has bumped from one scandal to the next during his career. But like a child's toy with a weighted bottom, each time he is knocked over his smiling face comes bouncing back undaunted.

He has been accused of using gangsters to help him win election as prime minister in 1987, of taking money from the scandal-ridden Sagawa delivery company and of misappropriating funds while finance minister. He was forced to resign as prime minister in 1989 because of involvement in the Recruit shares-for-favours scandal. His private secretary committed suicide to shield his boss from further damage after the Recruit affair. The LDP faction that bore his name is a byword for all that is bad about Japanese money politics.

It is just other people trying to blacken his name, says Kyoko Nagase, a housewife who lives down the road from Mr Takeshita in Kakeya. 'People from around here do not say 'yes' or 'no' so openly for fear of offending others. That is perhaps the reason why he has not yet completely cleared his name.'

Mr Takeshita's house is on a narrow street sloping up towards the mountain. The houses are mostly old, wooden structures with sliding screens instead of doors. Kakeya has a population of 5,000 and is surrounded by tiny rice-fields that use up all the flat land in the valley. The real issue here is how to halt the flow of young people from the area to Tokyo or Osaka. Political scandals do not seem relevant. 'Those houses there have been empty for five or six years,' says Mrs Nagase, pointing to three houses opposite the Takeshita residence. 'Only three families in this whole street have children at primary school. In some of the houses the only people living there are over eighty.'

The depopulation of rural areas in Japan is particularly acute in Shimane prefecture, where 29 per cent of the population is over 65, the highest in the nation. The town hall at Kakeya even offers pounds 600 in cash to anyone who moves in, 'but even that is not so attractive', sighed Mrs Nagase. Mr Takeshita, therefore, has avid listeners when he talks about 'making one's home town liveable'.

And his family supplies the local sake. In two tall outbuildings next to the Takeshita house are the vats where the rice, grape sugar, water and alcohol are brewed into Japan's national drink. 'All done in the traditional way,' said Hitoshi Kato, one of the employees. Three of Mr Takeshita's relatives are involved in the sake business, which seems to appeal to politicians; Shin Kanemaru, the other villain of Japanese politics, also comes from a sake-brewing family.

(Photograph omitted)