TOKYO — Japanese politics has never been sexier. Ordinarily the domain of dull, gray men who strike murky deals behind closed doors and shun provocative issues, the political arena has been transformed in recent weeks by a former geisha.
That's right, a geisha, one of those artistes and sometime concubines of the fading "willow world," a major icon of Japanese exotica along with samurai, sumo wrestlers and Mt. Fuji.
Picture her forlorn and disgruntled. She says that Sosuke Uno, the mild-mannered statesman in horned-rimmed glasses who in early June became Japan's 18th postwar prime minister, paid her about $21,000 in a brief and furtive sexual liaison four years ago.
Pervasiveness of Affairs
No problem, normally, considering the pervasiveness of extra-marital affairs among prominent Japanese men and the traditional prestige of keeping a pricey mistress.
But the allegations, made in the form of a confessional by a certain "Miss A," were printed in a respected magazine on June 4--just two days after Uno took office with the mandate of restoring confidence in the scandal-ridden Liberal Democratic regime.
At first, the alarming news was that the Sunday Mainichi, published by the mass-circulation newspaper Mainichi, had dared to break a longstanding taboo against writing about politicians' peccadilloes. Some serious embarrassment started brewing, however, when it was noted that the report had circulated in the foreign media.
Censure in Parliament
Then came censure by opposition members in Parliament, howls of outrage by women's groups and speculation by pundits that the unseemly little affair could seriously damage the prime minister. Uno had already scored poorly in early opinion polls, and his Liberal Democratic Party was still reeling from a stock-trading scandal, a tax reform fiasco and entrenched resistance to a plan to liberalize farm imports.
It all came home to roost in a by-election in rural, conservative Niigata prefecture on Sunday when a woman running on the Socialist ticket, Kinuko Ofuchi, defeated the ruling party favorite. The loss is seen as strategic in that it came less than a month before half the seats in the Upper House are to be contested July 23 in a crucial test of the political winds.
"We didn't anticipate that we would lose that badly," the prime minister told a news conference Monday. "To have lost that badly we have to think seriously about it and to examine why it happened."
Asked by a reporter whether his "woman problem" might have contributed to the setback, Uno, 66, demurred. He reminded the public that he had refused to comment on "personal matters" under questioning in Parliament earlier in the month.
However, political commentator Soichiro Tahara was quoted by the British news agency Reuters as saying that women voters who disapproved of Uno's private life had helped contribute to the Socialist victory. He said Uno's campaign efforts in Niigata on behalf of the Liberal Democratic Party candidate Hideo Kimi had hurt his chances.
Uno's wife has been less reticent than her husband on the issue. In an article, published June 22 in the magazine Shukan Bunshun, Chiyo Uno was quoted as saying she did not believe that her husband had strayed, because he promised to be faithful when they married. She apologized for the uproar.
"I don't know much about what happened between my husband and the geisha, but I apologize for the clamor caused by it," she said. "At any rate, it's all in the past, so why should it be made an issue of now? But I would not forgive him if he were to break his promise by fooling around with geishas."
Meanwhile, "Miss A" has come forward and identified herself in a bold denunciation of the man she thinks is unfit to carry out the responsibilities of a prime minister--because he was unkind to her.
Mitsuko Nakanishi, 40, who retired from the demimonde to become an office worker after her alleged five-month relationship with Uno, was interviewed by Tokyo Broadcasting System at a Buddhist temple in Kagoshima in southwestern Japan, where she is undergoing purification rites.
"He should have been kinder," Nakanishi said in the interview, which was broadcast Sunday. "What good is a person who lacks sympathy for those less fortunate than he? He should not be in politics."
Since the imbroglio unfolded, other weekly magazines--known here for their muckraking ways--have carried stories contending that Uno was involved with other women, including prostitutes. These reports, and the geisha affair, could not be independently corroborated.
Compared With Hart
Comparisons have been made here of Uno and former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, the married Democrat whose presidential bid was derailed by reports of his alleged affair with a young model, Donna Rice. But it is too soon to say whether the affair has unveiled a sudden change in Japanese values, away from permissiveness toward male promiscuity, or merely shows the public's irritability toward the seemingly arrogant clique of conservative politicians who rule Japan.
Uno, who previously served as foreign minister, was hand-picked by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita to succeed him after Takeshita was forced to step down because of his role in the Recruit stock-trading scandal.
The geisha scandal has produced calls that Uno, too, should quit.
"Paying money for a woman should not be forgiven; this is completely different than a love affair," Michiko Morikawa of the Asian Women's Forum, a feminist group, told the Japan Times earlier in the month. "Women are angry. We believe Uno should resign."