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The Danger of Dalliance

After less than a month in office, Japan’s Prime Minister Sosuke Uno finds that his public approval rating has sunk to an almost unbelievably low 10%. Uno himself is said by friends to have sunk into near-depression. The man who just a few weeks ago was perceived as the Mr. Clean of Japanese politics--and who for that reason above all others was picked to lead the corruption-plagued ruling Liberal Democratic Party and so became head of government--is now himself battling scandal. Uno’s predecessor, Noboru Takeshita, was forced to resign after the Recruit Co. scandal revealed business payoffs to top party officials in return for political favors. Uno, a married man, is in trouble for what is being delicately referred to as his “woman problem.”

His specific burden involves allegations of illicit sexual relations with a number of women, among them a 10-year affair with a geisha and a fling with a 16-year-old. An article published by a third woman who claims she was Uno’s mistress for four months has done him no favors with its accusations that he is vain, rude, callous, pompous and cheap. In the past rumors and reports of sexual indiscretions among certain Japanese politicians attracted little public notice. This time, though, Japan’s feminists are treating allegations about Uno as a major issue. As a result his political survival is in doubt, and his presence at the helm of government is being seen as a liability for his party and an international embarrassment for the country.

The obvious way out would seem to be for Uno to go, and quickly. For a number of reasons, though, he seems likely to hang on to office, at least through most of July.

The most important reason is that no successor seems to be readily available. Uno reluctantly agreed to take the reins of the Liberal Democrats only after leaders of the faction-ridden party were unable to agree on anyone better. The list of possible replacements hasn’t grown greatly in the last few weeks. So for now, scandal or not, Uno is stuck with the job, and the party to its distress is stuck with Uno.

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Being premier he must act as premier. Among other things that means representing Japan at the mid-July summit conference of major industrialized nations in Paris, a meeting Uno is said to be dreading because he fears that the sex scandal could produce humiliating snubs from his peers. Meanwhile, Uno, as head of his party, has become nominally responsible for the fate of the Liberal Democrats in the July 23 elections for the Upper House. A number of Liberal Democrats running for office are said to have asked Uno to stay as far away as possible from their campaigns.

The Uno affair, whatever else may be said about it, is not without certain theatrical ironies. For here is a man who really had little interest in becoming prime minister, who was content to stay what he was--with his secrets safely hidden--but who was prevailed on to take the job for the good of the party. Here is a man whose chief political qualification for the highest reward his party could give was that his public record seemed to free from blemish. In Uno’s eyes, in the eyes of those who chose him, perhaps it was, the odd mistress here or there not being regarded as ethically disqualifying. Public opinion in Japan pretty clearly sees things differently, no doubt to the surprise of many. In consequence the Liberal Democrats find themselves in trouble, and Sosuke Uno seems to have become a politician whose future is behind him.


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