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In Japan, the kingmakers still gather in smoke-filled rooms

Published Oct. 14, 2005

Smoke-filled rooms may be a thing of the past in health-conscious America but they're alive and smokier than ever in other parts of the world. The smoke-filled room, those of you over the age of 15 will remember, is where America's most important political decisions used to be made. If there was an election coming up, the "pols" would get together to fill up a room with cigar smoke, sip their Wild Turkey neat and come up with a candidate.

Sure, the voters got their say at the ballot box just like we do now. And outside of Chicago, some of the elections were even honest. But it was the smoke-filled room where the people we got to vote for were picked to begin with.

Things are different now. In the first place, smoking is on the verge of becoming a capital offense. In the second, wheeler-dealer politics _ the kind Lyndon Johnson used to be so good at _ has given way to slick media packaging and opinion polling exercises that bring you candidates like .


. Well, I'm sure you can think of a dozen or so blow-dried non-entities whose position on any given issue is as much a mystery to the candidate himself as it is to the public.

So, if you want to see politics the way it used to be, you have to look outside the United States. And as good a place as any to find it is Japan.

The first thing you need to know about Japan is that even though it's a democracy, there's only one political party that counts _ the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP. There are other parties, to be sure, but they haven't counted for much since the LDP started running the country 36 years ago.

In practice, what this means is that all the real politicking is done inside the LDP, among its various factions _ and usually in smoke-filled rooms. The Japanese public doesn't have any say in this, just the politicians, and only a few of them at that.

The key word to remember here is "factions." The factions are what counts, and each of the five major LDP factions is headed by a boss who runs it something like a Mafia godfather runs his family: Favors are passed around in the form of government contracts, protective legislation, business tips, patronage jobs or plain old cash. The IOUs are called in when it's time to pick a new party leader or call an election.

Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall in New York or Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago (the original one, not the son) can hardly touch the LDP faction bosses of Japan when it comes to machine politics. For one thing, the LDP godfathers have more money to play around with than Tweed or Daley ever dreamed of. For another, when they cut a deal on who gets what job in the next government, there's almost no chance the bargain will get undone by pesky things like voters.

Even if Daley delivered the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy as a lot of people believe, he never had the kind of political clout wielded almost every day by Shin Kanemaru, the "kingmaker" of the LDP's biggest faction.

This past week, Kanemaru and his fellow godfathers have been doing what they enjoy most _ butting heads to see who gets to reshuffle Japan's government.

First, they had to get rid of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, the man Kanemaru put in office two years ago as a "throne warmer" when most of Japan's heavy hitting politicians were temporarily knocked out of action by an insider stock trading and kickback scandal. Having decided that two years out of the limelight was enough to clean up their image, the heavy hitters simply informed Kaifu on Friday that his contract wasn't being renewed.

Kaifu may have been more popular with the Japanese public than any politician in years, but he knew better than to protest his summary firing. On Saturday, he announced that he wouldn't be a candidate in the LDP's leadership election Oct. 27.

As much as anything else, the thing that did in Kaifu was his proposed election reform law that could have resulted in as many as 100 members of parliament _ many of them LDP deputies _ losing their jobs.

When the party godfathers objected, Kaifu hinted he might dissolve parliament and call early elections. But loyal faction members in the Cabinet looked to their political godfathers instead of the prime minister and refused to go along with general elections right now. Kaifu was finished.

So, the only election the Japanese public will be seeing any time soon is the Oct. 27 balloting for LDP leader.

As of Tuesday, the heavy betting for the LDP leadership, and with it the prime minister's job, was going toward one of the most traditional godfathers, former Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. The only man with a chance of blocking Miyazawa is Kanemaru. Kanemaru is probably too old to run himself but could still name a candidate from his own faction before the end of the week.

In any case, whoever wins out among the factions, it won't make much difference outside Japan. All the LDP leaders share the same basic outlook of conservative economic practices at home and a foreign policy based on close friendship with the United States.

Kaifu may have been considered an especially good friend of George Bush during his two years at the top, but his successor, whoever he is, will likely be able to say the same the same thing in short order.

As I said earlier, the Japanese public doesn't have a say in any of this. The LDP godfathers, as usual, will be calling the shots.