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NEWS ANALYSIS : Japan Washes Its Political Dirty Laundry : Scandal: Prosecutors, Parliament members delve into ties between public officials and underworld. Prominent figures are called to account.


TOKYO — A scandal involving an express delivery company and a motley cast of hundreds is shedding light on the close ties between Japan's political world and its shady underworld.

The scandal began to unfold last summer when it was revealed that Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin, the Tokyo affiliate of a nationwide package delivery company, had lent or guaranteed loans worth billions of dollars to front companies for the late gangster boss Susumu Ishii.

This fall, Japan's premier powerbroker, Shin Kanemaru, was forced to retire from politics after admitting that he had accepted $4 million in illegal contributions from Sagawa.

Now the curtain is rising on the final act, perhaps the most intriguing one, as prosecutors and members of Parliament investigate Sagawa's role as an intermediary between Japan's gangsters and its most powerful politicians.

Japan's opposition parties, using the leverage of a threatened boycott of Parliament, have forced a parliamentary budget committee to hold hearings into the affair. For several days this week, key figures in the scandal have testified and the Japanese public appears not to like what it is hearing.

On Thursday, former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and Hiroyasu Watanabe, former president of Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin, testified. On Friday, it was Kanemaru's turn.

The reaction has been a shower of angry denunciations from opposition politicians and newspaper commentators; instant opinion polls reflect public doubts about their credibility. Their vagueness and claims of memory loss have prompted cries for perjury charges to be brought against them.

The story, according to depositions by Watanabe and statements by a small right-wing group called Kominto, began in the fall of 1987 when Takeshita was all but assured of becoming Japan's next prime minister.

But he had one big headache. Blocking the streets outside his home daily were black sound trucks from Kominto. In window-shaking decibels, the trucks "praised" Takeshita for his skill in collecting money, a tactic Kominto called "crush by praising."

The police responded by saying they were helpless to do anything. Several senior politicians of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party offered Kominto $20 million and more to end their harassment, but they turned the money down.

They were protesting, they said, because they were unhappy at the way Takeshita had shown disloyalty by breaking with his boss, former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.

Party leaders then turned to the Japanese underworld to tackle the problem. Powerbroker Kanemaru asked Sagawa President Watanabe to get the cooperation of Ishii, then the head of the Tokyo-based Inagawakai crime syndicate. Ishii contacted a Kyoto mob boss who knew the head of Kominto and asked him to intervene.

Kominto set as a condition for its retreat that Takeshita visit Tanaka's home to apologize. Watanabe took this message to Takeshita, who then made a cursory visit to Tanaka, knowing he would be turned away. The harassment ended.

Takeshita's testimony Thursday before Parliament did not directly contradict any of these points, but the former prime minister denied having specific knowledge of the underworld's involvement in the deal made on his behalf. Powerbroker Kanemaru said Friday that at a 1987 meeting where he, Takeshita and Watanabe discussed Kominto's harassment campaign, he drank too much whiskey to know if Takeshita found out about Ishii's intervention.

Takeshita also denied having written a document purportedly signed by him, a key piece of evidence shown to the panel to establish that he had ties with gangsters. That prompted a member of his own party, upper house member Masaru Urata, to call for perjury charges.

"Mr. Takeshita wrote that document in front of my eyes," Urata told the news agency Kyodo. "I can swear to heaven and the gods."

Whatever the details of who knew what when, the story begs a question that everybody who follows politics in Japan is now asking: Why would Japan's top political leaders offer tens of millions of dollars and even go so far as to risk recruiting crime syndicate bosses just to quiet the sound trucks of a dozen or so right-wing extremists who had no impact on Takeshita's selection as prime minister?

To answer the question requires some background on Japan's right-wing groups.

There is a long tradition of the ruling party making use of gangsters to do their dirty work. When left-wing groups threatened massive riots on the eve of a visit by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960 for the signing of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, the Liberal Democrats mobilized 147,000 members of right-wing groups, including 33,000 gang members, to hold off the leftists. Eisenhower canceled his trip anyway, fearing violence, but the effort strengthened the links between gangs, the rightists and the ruling party.

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