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Pounds 23m scandal may finally oust Takeshita

A BEAUTIFUL folding screen decorated with gold leaf may do what no amount of parliamentary questioning and public prosecutors' investigations have done to Noboru Takeshita: it may force him to resign his seat from the Diet, or parliament.

The affair of the screen, once valued at 4bn yen ( pounds 23m) goes back to 1985, but has suddenly re- emerged to haunt one of Japan's most powerful senior politicians.

Mr Takeshita has survived more scandals than the average Japanese politician. He was forced to resign the prime ministership in 1989 over the Recruit shares-for-favours scandal. His secretary, Ihei Aoki, committed suicide, but Mr Takeshita came back to head the largest faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - just in time to get embroiled in the scandal about the Sagawa delivery firm.

The Sagawa affair, which involves links with organised crime and illegal donations to politicians, has already forced the resignation of Shin Kanemaru, the once infamous kingmaker of the LDP. Among other things, Mr Kanemaru was found to have asked gangsters to help Mr Takeshita get elected to the prime minister's post in 1987.

Mr Takeshita has so far managed to shake off the Sagawa scandal. He again pleaded his innocence in testimony before the Diet yesterday - the third time he has been called to answer questions on Sagawa in parliament. But detailed courtroom testimony on his involvement with the golden screen is getting harder to deny.

The screen was estimated to have a value of 500m yen, it was sold for eight times that value to an art dealer with funds lent by the Heiwa Sogo bank in 1985. According to the bank's auditor at the time, Shigeaki Isaka, 300m yen of the proceeds were earmarked for Mr Takeshita. Mr Isaka said the bank was trying to curry favour with Mr Takeshita and the ministry of finance to help it recover from a number of bad loans.

On Tuesday a former bank auditor told a Tokyo court that Mr Takeshita's name was on a list to receive a cut from the proceeds of the sale of the golden screen. What is most compromising about the affair is that Mr Takeshita was finance minister at the time, and the bank was seeking help from the ministry for a rescue scheme.