Staff writer

Although the turmoil surrounding Koko Sato started to die down Sept. 22 with his departure from the Cabinet, the political damage to Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party remains.

Sato’s appointment, which came despite his past bribery conviction, drew strong public criticism that the LDP was continuing faction-oriented, money politics. After Sato resigned Sept. 22, Hashimoto openly admitted he was wrong in his estimate of the public’s ethical standards.

Although giving Sato a Cabinet post had been considered for years, past prime ministers did not dare do so out of fear of a public outcry. Hashimoto and LDP executives, however, failed to see any problem in giving a post to Sato, who received a suspended sentence in 1986 in connection with the 1970s Lockheed payoff scandal. Instead, they took into account high public support for the LDP and Hashimoto when making the appointment, many analysts say.

“Hashimoto’s decision to give Sato a Cabinet post came from his arrogance,” said Muneyuki Shindo, a political science professor at Rikkyo University. “Hashimoto’s way of thinking is so different from the public’s standard.” The public’s initial approval rating of Hashimoto’s new Cabinet came to 28 percent — 22 percentage points lower than what the previous Cabinet gained when it was formed last November, according to a Kyodo News poll.

Some 74 percent of the respondents — covering 1,000 male and female voters nationwide — said they were against Sato’s appointment. The Prime Minister’s Official Residence also received about 100 e-mail messages the day after the reshuffle, most of which criticized Hashimoto for appointing Sato.

Fukashi Horie, a professor emeritus at Keio University, said politicians in Tokyo’s Nagatocho are not in tune with the public and Sato’s resignation came only after a torrent of criticism drenched the Hashimoto administration. And even though Sato resigned voluntarily, Hashimoto remains to blame for triggering the storm, experts say.

It is said the Sato appointment was strongly pushed by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, but it was Hashimoto who made the final decision, says Takeshi Sasaki, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo.

During a news conference Sept. 12, the day after the reshuffle, Hashimoto defended the appointment by saying Sato must be given “a second chance.” The turmoil also was taken as an indication of the fragility of the Hashimoto administration and his lack of leadership.

The prime minister simply left the brewing controversy for LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato to deal with. But Kato and other executives could not come up with a way to cool the fire and asked members of Sato’s LDP factional group, formerly led by the late Michio Watanabe, to solve the problem by persuading Sato to resign.

However, even Nakasone, a close ally of Sato and a key member of the faction, failed to get Sato to step down. “Hashimoto can draw up policy measures, but he is not good at steering politics,” said University of Tokyo professor Sasaki. “Since Seiroku Kajiyama (former chief Cabinet secretary) left, there is nobody around Hashimoto with the decisiveness to steer politics.” Kajiyama left in the reshuffle.

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