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A Japanese scandal we can relate to

Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa shouldn't have needed an embarrassing political defeat to remind him that his ruling Liberal Democrats still haven't extricated themselves from a massive political scandal that already has driven two of his predecessors from office in the past three years.

Miyazawa himself was forced out of his job as finance minister in 1988 because of his unconvincing attempts to explain away his connections to the so-called Recruit influence-buying scandal. A year later, the Liberal Democrats lost their longstanding majority in Parliament's upper house. Now Miyazawa's candidate has been trounced in a special parliamentary election that was generally recognized as the first important test of the new prime minister's political strength.

As in 1989's national elections, the Liberal Democrats' defeat in the parliamentary contest was attributable to a broader lack of confidence in Japan's political system. Since the Liberal Democrats have controlled that system for almost four decades, they are rightly being held responsible for a level of institutionalized corruption that makes even the American political system look quaintly innocent by comparison.

Many Americans were offended by Miyazawa's criticism of our "work ethic" during a recent speech describing the excesses encouraged by Washington and Wall Street in the 1980s, but those comments apparently were intended as a parable for Japan's own problems. Many Japanese corporations, like some of their American counterparts, have become more interested in easy money and easy influence than productive growth. And all too many politicians in both countries have become willing tools of special interests with money to spare.

If Miyazawa and other Liberal Democratic leaders don't finally heed the growing popular demand for fundamental political reform, they and their party risk being swept from power later this year. More important, they also risk doing irreparable harm to a democratic system of government that has had less than half a century to establish itself.

Whatever our other differences with Japan, Americans can relate to the sense of frustration and disgust that Japanese voters have begun to express for a political process that has become almost hopelessly distorted by the corrupting influence of big money.