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The Shadow Shogun : In Japan, Shin Kanemaru, a black belt in political Judo, is the maker of kings. Tired of the commute to Tokyo, he may even get the capital relocated to his home prefecture.

August 09, 1992|JEFF SHEAR | Jeff Shear is a Washington-based writer who is working on a book about the FSX fighter deal with Japan. It will be published in fall, 1993, by St. Martin's Press.

LAST MARCH, IN A PREFECTURE NORTH OF TOKYO, A GUNMAN CHARGED OUT of the audience just as the aged politician the Japanese call "the shadow shogun" finished his speech. Security men assumed he was a photographer hurrying past. He opened fire within 15 feet of his target. Three rapid shots rang out.

The old man, wearing a dark gray pin-striped suit with a balloon-sized pink floral ribbon over the breast pocket, a memento given in respect to his position, thought an insect had buzzed past his shoulder. Fear did not register on his face until the third shot from the .38 caliber revolver. Then, videotape of the incident shows, his lips trembled and his gaze slid toward the gunman. The rheumy brown eyes, usually little more than weary slits, widened. The ribbon bobbed on his chest like a target.

The shooter, a right-wing fanatic out to make a name for himself, stopped firing only after he was swarmed over by yellow-jacketed security guards. Additional security men, dressed in salary-man blue suits, rushed from the wings of the stage toward the old man, who disappeared.

A long minute passed before it was clear what had transpired. The tumult onstage and below in the audience continued until the old man was back in his chair, looking shaken but unhurt, mopping his brow. The relieved crowd broke into spontaneous applause. The politician did not rise to bow, however. Instead, his head dropped forward, and for an instant, the motion could have been construed as collapse. But when he raised his head at last, his eyes were once again little slits under the sage-like eyebrows. The great stone face was impassive.

If there is anyone in Japan who can dodge bullets, it is the shadow shogun, 77-year-old Shin Kanemaru. Having ducked a fair share of diplomatic gaffes as well as persistent rumors of corruption, underworld associations and personal illness, he has figured in the rise, and in some cases, the fall of every Japanese prime minister in the last decade. As a powerbroker and political boss, he is arguably the most influential man in Japanese politics. Indeed, he holds in his hands the fate of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.

Kanemaru controls the highway to high office through his influence over the largest of the five factions that make up the patchwork of the conservative, industry-driven Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled the nation in unbroken hauteur since 1955. Despite repeated scandals and persistent rumors of political decline, the party pulls voters year after year because of Japan's growing prosperity. Though the system has its flaws, and voters know it, it delivers what they most want: an ever-better style of living.

Since the LDP holds the majority in the powerful lower house of the Japanese Parliament, which elects the prime minister, no one can ascend to the nation's top post without first getting Kanemaru's blessing.

Kanemaru's powers were clearly in evidence last October, when he pulled his support for Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, setting the stage for the naming of a new chief executive. When three LDP candidates then vied for the post, Kanemaru brokered a deal in which his faction threw its support behind Miyazawa, a veteran politician whose cerebral style had branded him an elitist. In return for Kanemaru's benefaction, Miyazawa gave away at least two Cabinet seats and key party posts that his own faction normally would have controlled.

Kanemaru's position as party vice president (the prime minister is president) is largely titular, good for a chauffeur and a parking place; his real power stems from the classic formula of money, favor and connections. He has say, for example, over which candidates get the party's campaign largess. In his 34 years in politics, he has earned a reputation as a go-between who barters for high office. "Without me," he has said, "nothing would go smoothly."

Political careers ride on the pronouncements of this frail leader. "He is the sort of man you don't want to cross," says Cornelia Meyer, a Swiss adviser to a prominent legislator in an opposing faction. "You don't know what he can do."

His network extends even to the LDP's opponents. The left-leaning Social Democratic Party of Japan represents the largest opposition. Split between a stubbornly unaccommodating Marxist wing and its more conservative leadership, it squandered a big win in the 1989 upper house election through internal squabbling. Party leader Makoto Tanabe has earned the suspicion of voters with his frequent consultations with Kanemaru. The two often are seen together in pricey restaurants. Two other key parties, both centrist and both disorganized, represent only occasional opposition to the ruling party. Most often they act in coalition with the LDP to override the Socialists. The fourth opposition party, the Communists, struggles to remain relevant.

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