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Hashimoto Elevates Convicted Felon in Ministerial Reshuffle

By Kevin Sullivan
The Washington Post
TOKYO

In a unusual display of political brass, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto brought back-room politics out into the open Thursday by naming a convicted felon to a key post in a cabinet reshuffle.

Analysts said Hashimoto's appointment of Koko Sato, who was convicted of taking bribes in the massive Lockheed scandal of 1976, was a political gift to the conservative Old Guard in his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had lobbied vigorously for Sato.

The support of that conservative wing, led by powerful former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, is crucial to the success of the fiscal, administrative and defense reforms upon which Hashimoto has staked his political future.

Critics have said Hashimoto lacks the clout to keep his ambitious pledges to streamline Japan's central government, open the country's over-regulated financial system and expand the role of Japan's military. Failure would be devastating to his reputation in Japan and in the United States, which regards Hashimoto as an ally and sees his proposed reforms as pivotal to America's economic and military interests in Asia.

By appointing Sato, 69, to head the Management and Coordination Agency, which is overseeing the streamlining, Hashimoto may have hired the muscle he needs to attack the bureaucracy from within. Sato represents an LDP establishment with massive influence over bureaucrats who want to block the reforms. One analyst said Sato will be grateful to Hashimoto for a second political life and will "work like hell" to push his reforms.

Analysts Thursday said Hashimoto is gambling that his personal popularity and the strength of the LDP, which are both at a high point, will be enough to withstand the public criticism he will receive for the appointment of Sato.

"It's a sign of strength that Hashimoto can do this," said political analyst John Neuffer. "He's going to take some hits in the media about this, but he'll keep Nakasone and the Old Boys happy, which is more important to him."

Thursday's cabinet reshuffle came on the same day Hashimoto was elected to a second two-year term as LDP president. He has also overseen the resurrection of his party from its low point in 1993, when it lost the one-party lock it had held on power for almost 40 years. Last Friday, the LDP regained an outright majority in the 500-seat lower house of parliament when an opposition lawmaker defected.

Hashimoto further flexed his political muscles by retaining Finance Minister Hiroshi Mitsuzuka and Defense Agency chief Fumio Kyuma. Normally, premiers like to make a clean sweep in their midterm cabinet reshuffles, handing out the top jobs as political perks. By choosing to keep Mitsuzuka and Kyuma, who are key to his financial and defense proposals, Hashimoto was choosing policy over politics - a gamble that a weaker premier might not have been able to make, analysts said.

Sato was convicted in 1982 of accepting about $15,000 in bribes in a scandal in which the Lockheed Corp. was attempting to influence Japanese lawmakers to purchase aircraft for its civilian fleet. Sato, who accepted the bribes when he was vice minister of transportation, was given a three-year suspended jail sentence. He also paid about $15,000 in fines.

Last year, Sato was reelected to parliament from his home district on the northern island of Hokkaido. Since then, he has been quietly helping Hashimoto with his government reforms.

"It's not like Sato is just some clown out of nowhere," Neuffer said. "He has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting to get Hashimoto's administrative reforms off the ground."

Hashimoto is also heading into choppy waters over new allegations of political graft that surfaced this week and affect key members of his team. On Monday, Osaka oil dealer Junichi Izui, who is on trial for tax evasion and fraud, alleged that he had given about $2.3 million in illegal contributions to six LDP lawmakers, including Keizo Obuchi, who Hashimoto named as foreign minister Thursday.

Izui also said he gave money to one of Hashimoto's closest allies, Taku Yamazaki, head of the LDP's Policy Research Council. Hashimoto told reporters he had decided to keep Yamazaki in his position, as long as he could refute Izui's allegations.