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World Perspective | ASIA

Blacklists Make Debut in Japan as Political Tool

Activists have cribbed South Korean tactic in bid to oust allegedly unsuitable lawmakers. The move has rattled the establishment, but some predict little impact on vote.

May 26, 2000|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Fed up with politics as usual, Japanese citizens groups are cribbing a tactic used by democracy activists in neighboring South Korea and publishing lists of politicians they deem corrupt, criminal, stupid, superannuated or otherwise unfit to serve in parliament.

At least five different citizens groups based in Tokyo, Osaka and Shizuoka have compiled separate blacklists and are distributing them via fax, leaflet or the Internet in anticipation of a June 25 election.

The blacklists vary widely in their ideology and in the criteria used to judge the offending politicians. But all of them target mainly incumbents from the Liberal Democratic Party--which has dominated Japanese politics for nearly five decades.

The Osaka-based group has posted a sophisticated Web site with its political manifestoes, its scorecard criteria and details of the alleged misdeeds of the 13 incumbents on its list. Some others have only printed leaflets asking voters to dump certain incumbents.

However, most of the alleged misdeeds were reported in the Japanese media years ago. And many of the politicians have since been reelected by loyal constituents who value pork-barrel service over political purity. So most analysts predict that the blacklists will have little impact on the final election results.

Still, the specter of nasty political report cards zipping through cyberspace a month before the election is sending shivers through a Japanese political establishment already rattled by the public's obvious irritation with it.

After just eight weeks on the job, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is deeply unpopular, thanks both to the secretive way he was chosen by party bosses and to his recent declaration that Japan is "a divine nation with the emperor at its center."

A survey conducted after the "divine nation" flap and published Monday by the Mainichi newspaper found that 54% of the public disapproved of Mori's government, up 30 points from a month earlier. Only 20% approved.

Public disenchantment goes beyond Mori to a general discontent with the nation's scandal-plagued political system, record unemployment and rising crime. There is widespread anxiety about whether the government can really cure what ails the Japanese economy, and a sense that Japan has outgrown its cozy postwar system but lacks the leadership to change.

"There's a resentment among the general public over their powerlessness to influence political decisions," said Shohei Muta, who follows citizens movements in the nation at the Japan Center for International Exchange.

The blacklists are the latest brainstorm of frustrated liberal activists who have been campaigning for years to bring such Western notions as openness and accountability to Japanese politics. The tactic is a direct import from South Korea, where citizens groups this winter circulated lists of dozens of candidates they called tax cheats, draft dodgers, criminals, corrupt or otherwise unfit for election to parliament.

On South Korea's election night April 13, the Citizens' Alliance for 2000 General Elections announced triumphantly that 57 of the 86 candidates on its "dump" list had been defeated.

Inspired by that example, Tokyo grass-roots activist Zensaku Sakurai visited South Korea this spring and returned to form Wave 21, which is seeking the defeat of 23 Japanese incumbents.

Another Tokyo-based citizens group has invited a Korean activist, Lee Tai Ho, to lecture in Japan starting today.

Japanese officeholders are now sounding as angry as their South Korean brethren did a few months back. LDP officials have complained that the lists are inaccurate and unfair. In addition, the New Komeito party sent Wave 21 a letter threatening a defamation lawsuit, and there have been suggestions that blacklists might constitute illegal "election interference."

But an official of the Home Affairs Ministry said the blacklists are not illegal, though he said they might violate Japanese election law if they are distributed during the official campaign period.

Both Wave 21 and the Osaka-based Alliance to Defeat Unqualified Parliamentarians are calling for voters in rural Ishikawa prefecture to dump Mori, who is branded unfit for having received shares of the conglomerate Recruit Co. in a 1988 influence-peddling scandal.

Mori was never accused of any illegality, but the group has listed him as "criminal or corrupt" together with convicted Lockheed bribe-taker Koko Sato and three other LDP incumbents.

Also targeted by blacklists are politicians who have defended Japan's World War II behavior, switched parties immediately after being elected, accepted questionable campaign contributions, supported a law allowing police wiretapping or allegedly abused their positions for private gain.

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