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Kanemaru's heirs feud in war of succession: Terry McCarthy in Tokyo finds a cynical power struggle in progress over the legacy of Japan's political kingmaker

HAVING exploited Japan's system of money politics for more than 30 years, Shin Kanemaru, the prime political fixer of his day, was forced to resign last week. His receipt of illegal political donations and his links with gangsters were finally exposed.

But now the budding disciples of Mr Kanemaru's political faction are fighting over the right to become his heir - and they are attacking each other with no holds barred. Whoever succeeds him will aspire to don Mr Kanemaru's mantle as leader of the strongest faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - a position with immense power which allowed Mr Kanemaru personally to pick the last four prime ministers of Japan.

But, as the Japanese media have not been slow to point out, the power struggle within Mr Kanemaru's old faction is going on behind closed doors, with no hint of democratic accountability.

What is more, in their struggle to hold the faction together and produce a new leader, the faction members are entirely ignoring the root cause of the crisis - a far- reaching corruption and organised-crime scandal for which no one, apart from Mr Kanemaru himself, appears willing to take responsibility.

Mr Kanemaru's old faction has 109 Diet, or parliamentary, members, more than a quarter of the LDP's representation in the two houses of the Diet. It is commonly known as the Takeshita faction, after the former prime minister Noboru Takeshita, who set it up in 1987 before he was disgraced in the Recruit shares-for-favours scandal two years later.

The strength of the faction is its ability to raise huge sums of money from corporate Japan and thus perpetuate its hold on power. Until he was implicated in revelations of an illegal donation of pounds 2m from a scandal-ridden trucking firm, Mr Kanemaru was seen as the absolute master of this system.

Before the scandal, Mr Kanemaru, 78, had wanted a hand- picked protege, Ichiro Ozawa, 50, to succeed him. But Mr Ozawa is seen by other faction members as being overly headstrong and ambitious and too closely linked with Mr Kanemaru during the scandal. After several days of private meetings among eight top figures in the faction, Mr Ozawa yesterday said he would not seek to take over the leadership. But the fight for a compromise candidate is still going on.

These cynical power struggles have done little to raise the image of politicians with their electorate. They have also prompted a chilling response from an officer in the Japanese military, who wrote in a widely respected magazine last week that the only way out of the impasse of political corruption was for the army to stage a coup.

'It is no longer possible to correct injustice through an election in the legitimate way that is the basis of democracy,' wrote Major Shinsaku Yanai in the Shukan Bunshun. 'The only means left is a revolution by coup d'etat.'

While few Japanese expected to see the military back on the streets as they were in the turmoil of the 1930s, Major Yanai's article at least sent another warning signal that the Japanese people are beginning to tire of the corrupt, feudal political system by which they are now governed.

The unaccountability of the political system has been highlighted by the apparent paralysis of Kiichi Miyazawa, the Prime Minister, during the entire scandal. Apart from calling the debacle 'an unfortunate thing', Mr Miyazawa has remained silent throughout, unable to intervene in the faction's congress, where real power is being wielded.

Worse still, until the balance of power within the Takeshita faction is settled, the government is unable to address two serious issues: the implementation of a supplementary budget to stimulate the economy and possible demands for the opening of Japan's rice market in the Gatt negotiations.