J’apan’s first major politics and sex scandal began with the headline, “You bought my body for 300,000 yen a month.” In an article published on June 4—just two days after Prime Minister Sosuko Uno assumed office— the respected Sunday Mainichi magazine published an interview with a 40-year-old former geisha who said that Uno, 66, paid her the equivalent of about $25,000 to have a fivemonth affair in 1985 and 1986. Since that first story, the Japanese and foreign media have carried a series of reports alleging that the married Uno also had affairs with a bar girl and a 16-year-old apprentice geisha. Last week, Uno insisted that he had never acted “contrary to morality.” But he was clearly distraught over the allegations: according to an employee at the prime minister’s residence, senior party members—visiting a shaken Uno at home on the night of June 27 to discuss the scandal— had to put the prime minister to bed. Japanese newspapers also reported—Uno denied it— that the prime minister offered last week to resign, and by week’s end it appeared that party leaders were pressing him to do so. Said one party source: “He is really fed up with all this scandal stuff.”
Ironically, Uno was widely called “Mr. Clean” when he became prime minister. That was a reference to the fact that he was one of the only senior members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who remained untainted by a bribery and influence-peddling scandal involving the powerful publishing and real estate conglomerate, Recruit Co. Indeed, former prime minister Noboru Takeshita was forced to resign after he admitted that his aides had accepted more than $1 million in donations from Recruit. The two scandals, as well as an unpopular sales tax enacted in April and the government’s decision to open Japan’s markets to agricultural imports, have pushed the LDP’s popularity rating to an all-time low—only 16 per cent, according to a newspaper poll. The LDP, which has held a total stranglehold on power since 1955, lost an important byelection on June 25 in Niigata Prefecture, a traditional LDP stronghold. And it was widely expected to fare poorly in two elections—one for the Tokyo metropolitan assembly on July 2, the other for the upper house of parliament on July 23. Both are considered bellwethers for the more important
lower house elections, which could be held as early as October and which will decide the next government. Although some observers in Tokyo said Uno’s resignation seemed inevitable, Japanese leaders at first appeared to be divided on the issue. Newspapers reported early last week that senior party officials urged Uno to stay in office at least until after the upper house elections, arguing that his immediate departure would create political chaos and damage Japan’s credibility internationally. But at week’s end, the Kyodo news agency reported that three party elders wanted the LDP to dump Uno and choose an acting prime minister as soon as possible— perhaps before the summit of seven industrial democracies scheduled to begin in Paris on July 14.
When Uno assumed office, there were no
indications that his private life would become a public issue. Geishas have a professional code of secrecy. They are trained to entertain men, laugh at their jokes and be their companions— but not necessarily to have sex with them. There are only about 17,000 geishas in Japan—down from an estimated 80,000 in the 1920s—and they are prohibitively expensive. As a result, their clients are predominantly wealthy—business executives and powerful politicians. Mitsuko Nakanishi, the woman who touched off the controversy, said that she broke her silence to clear her conscience. “He [Uno] is not a man of noble character,” she said in a television interview on June 25. “He thinks he can buy women for money. I don’t want him to use politics in the same way he treated me.” Despite Nakanishi’s accusations, it was still unusual for the affair to be blown into a full-scale political scandal. Many Japanese political figures have been rumored to have mistresses. And Japanese reporters have never considered it their role to expose the private lives of Japanese leaders. But when The Washington Post carried a story about the Uno affair on June 7, it hit a nerve with a Japanese electorate that often reacts sensitively to foreign opinion. Japan Socialist party member Manae Kubota, waving a copy of The Post’s article in parliament, called the affair an international embarrassment. The foreign media coverage also prompted Japanese newspaof secrecy pers and magazines to investigate the scandal.
The widespread publicity surrounding Uno’s affairs have particularly damaged the LDP’s standing among women voters. “This really rubbed their faces in it,” said Tokyo University political analyst Steven Platzer. The Tokyo daily Mainichi Shimbun published a poll on June 30 that found only 18 per cent of women planned to vote for the LDP in the July 2 Tokyo elections, down from 33 per cent in elections four years ago.
And the affair could have damaging international repercussions. Uno himself has said that he does not want to attend the Paris summit, according to party officials. “He freaked out over how he’s going to appear overseas,” said one aide. “He’s afraid those leaders won’t even want to shake hands with him.” And it now appears that party officials too may not want to endure the spectacle of Uno’s dirty laundry being aired in public, even in Paris.
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