The Sleaze Factor: It's not graft, just duty and obligation: Bribes in Japan form part of a system of gifts and incentives, writes Terry McCarthy in Tokyo

Even by Japanese standards, Noboru Takeshita is one colourful politician. He has been accused in the Diet (parliament) of using gangsters to ensure he became prime minister in 1987. He was deeply involved in the two main political bribery cases of the last decade, the Recruit shares-for- favours scandal that forced him to resign as prime minister in 1989, and the Sagawa trucking company's extensive distribution of cash to politicians that was revealed in 1992.

His secretary committed suicide to shield him over the Recruit scandal.

During an earlier period as finance minister, he was accused of misappropriating funds, and the 'Takeshita faction' within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was renowned as the most spectacularly corrupt of all the political groupings.

But if you travel across the mountains of Shimane prefecture in southern Japan to Mr Takeshita's home constituency, little of this bad odour sticks to his name. On the contrary, perseverance and an ability to roll with the political punches in Tokyo has increased the local stature of this silver-haired 70-year-old.

'I was criticised for things I had nothing to do with,' he told a gathering of his constituents - mostly rice farmers and sake brewers - during the election campaign in July last year. 'I will compensate you during my entire political life for causing you concern,' he added with a humble bow, to rapturous applause.

And compensate them he has. For 35 years the relatively poor, unindustrialised farming districts of Shimane have been returning Mr Takeshita to the Diet in exchange for government funds of all descriptions: agricultural subsidies, construction projects for motorways and tunnels through the mountains, schools and hospitals. The Transport Ministry has a rule that provides one airport for each of Japan's 47 prefectures: Shimane has three.

'Political corruption', in the Western sense of an elected representative illicitly taking a reward for providing favours to a specific interest group, is not regarded as inherently wrong in Japan. It is seen as an extension of the system of giving gifts and providing incentives that stretches through the business world and society at large, binding individuals and groups together in mutual ties of obligation and duty.

Public opinion only becomes critical when politicians are seen to be too greedy and start welshing on their obligation to deliver the appropriate share from Tokyo's bottomless pork barrel. Otherwise, politicians have little power: the real decisions on the direction of the economy, the education system and the national infrastructure are taken by notoriously incorruptible bureaucrats.

The normal term used in Japanese for a politician caught taking a bribe is o- shoku, which means 'defiling one's job'. The sense is that by being careless enough to have the matter revealed in public, the official has brought dishonour on his elevated position. There is no moral overtone of having done something intrinsically wrong.

For this reason, when allegations of bribe-taking are made in the Diet, the standard line of defence is that the politicians' private secretaries or aides took the money, about which they themselves knew nothing. This is followed by several humble bows. The big man does not lose face, junior aides are not worth prosecuting anyway, and everyone is satisfied.

But this cosy hypocrisy was shattered by the Recruit scandal at the end of the 1980s and again by the Sagawa scandal in 1992. In both cases, however, the outrage surrounding the scandals was a harbinger of much deeper social tensions and the reluctance of the political structure to come to terms with them, rather than the impropriety of political bribe-taking as such.

Recruit, an employment agency, was found to have secretly given large tranches of its own shares to politicians, including cabinet ministers, in exchange for political favours.

The central issue was not money, although the sums involved were considerable, but the timing. The scandal came at the height of the 'bubble economy', when Japan's equitable wage system was dissolving under the weight of speculative gains made on the stock and property markets. Those with new money began to flaunt it conspicuously, causing resentment among those who were not so lucky.

When Recruit broke, it became a vehicle for criticising the wider phenomenon of easy money in a normally conservative society. But once the 'bubble' deflated, the memories of Recruit quickly faded. Kiichi Miyazawa, forced to resign in disgrace as finance minister in 1988, was sufficiently rehabilitated in 1991 to become prime minister.

The Sagawa scandal was in some senses even more cynical. Towards the end of the 1980s various faction bosses within the ruling LDP began to suspect that one of the party godfathers, Shin Kanemaru, was planning to split the party and launch his own political grouping. To do this he would need a lot of cash, and one of the main suppliers turned out to be Sagawa Kyubin, a trucking company seeking political favours to expand its business.

Various stories about Mr Kanemaru's accumulation of wealth were surreptitiously planted in the press and fed to public prosecutors and eventually he was arrested. Gold bars and bond certificates were discovered at his home and office, but once the plot was revealed, the heat went out of the case. Mr Kanemaru was found guilty of not reporting pounds 2.4m in 'political donations' and was fined pounds 960.

But by now the issue was no longer one of 'defiling one's job'. The new term for corruption was seiji fuhai, or 'politics rotten to the point of disintegration'. Politicians were no longer responding to the concerns of the majority of their constituents. In June 1993 the LDP was split over its inability to pass political reform measures and Japan entered a period of political turbulence as younger politicians sought a new vision for the economically powerful but politically immature nation. The old political system that had favoured farmers and corporations over urban consumers was seen to be in need of an overhaul.

Few politicians foresee an end to money politics in Japan. But they are having to come to terms with changing demographics, under which the majority of voters are urban office workers concerned about crowded trains and the high cost of living. These constituents are from a new generation and they expect different favours than the rice farmers and sake brewers of Mr Takeshita's home town. Another couple of scandals and the politicians might get the message.

Tomorrow: Spain (Photograph omitted)

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