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Scandal Hits Japanese Parliament

By T.R. Reid
The Washington Post

TOKYO

Ichiro Ozawa, a member of Japan's national Diet, or parliament, and a key strategist for the country's ruling coalition, called a press conference Monday to argue that his own receipt of contributions from a scandal-tainted construction firm proves the need for a law he is pushing to tighten contribution rules.

Seemingly unbothered by his brush with scandal, Ozawa conceded the truth of press reports saying he received contributions last December from Kajima Corp., a general contractor that has recently been charged with bribing numerous senior politicians to help win government contracts.

Ozawa insisted that the contributions were legal. Whether or not this is so depends on how much money was received and how it was used, but he provided little information on those points.

Ozawa is a key player in the coalition government's effort to pass a major new political "reform" law, including tough regulations on corporate contributions. Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa must gain passage of the bill in the lower house of the Diet by next week in order to get it enacted by the end of the year -- his chief legislative priority.

If Hosokawa can steer the bill to passage, that will greatly enhance his stature, and probably extend the life of his coalition government for a year or more. Enactment of the political reform bill would assure Hosokawa the clout to make other key changes, including opening Japan's rice market to imports from the United States and elsewhere.

If the political reform bill does not pass in the next two weeks, it probably will not be fatal for the coalition. But a failure on this key effort could undermine Hosokawa's potential to achieve the broad economic and regulatory changes he is seeking.

Ozawa, 50, was a rising star, key political strategist and big fund-raiser for the Liberal Democratic Party, which controlled Japanese politics for 38 years. But this year he played a central role in the mutiny within the party that helped end its rule and usher in Hosokawa's historic coalition government.

The contributions at issue were received when Ozawa was a Liberal Democrat. The Asahi Shimbun reported that he got contributions from Kajima Corp. twice a year for several years. Ozawa denied receiving regular contributions, but said Monday, "The reports that my political committees received contributions from Kajima last December are true."