TOKYO, MARCH 2 -- Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu left Japan today for his summit with President Bush amid small but worrying signs of trouble for his fledgling administration.
After Kaifu angered party bosses by excluding all "scandal-tainted" politicians from his cabinet this week, his government was embarrassed by its labor minister's disclosure that he had received large sums from Recruit Co., the information and employment services conglomerate at the center of last year's stock-and-bribery scandal.
A weekly magazine reported that Kaifu himself had received nearly twice as much from Recruit as he had earlier admitted. And while Kaifu denied the report, one of the party bosses whom Kaifu had angered seized on the report and challenged him to come forward with the truth.
None of these developments means that Kaifu is in danger of losing his job now, two weeks after his conservative Liberal Democratic Party won a resounding victory in parliamentary elections. But they served as reminders that Kaifu, whose power base is weak because he comes from one of the LDP's smallest factions, may have trouble implementing any promises he might make in his Palm Springs, Calif., summit with Bush.
The developments also come amid persistent reports that some LDP power brokers, eager to reassert their seniority after a year of scandals, would like to push Kaifu from his post, perhaps using rocky U.S.-Japanese relations as an excuse. Kaifu, buoyed by his win in the Feb. 18 election, has said he intends to serve out the remaining 19 months of his term.
Kaifu became LDP president, and thus prime minister, last August, after two predecessors had to resign in money and sex scandals. Unprecedented as a leader because he does not head even his small faction, Kaifu was chosen mostly for his clean image and fresh face.
Every top LDP leader, including prime minister Noboru Takeshita and would-be prime ministers Shintaro Abe and Michio Watanabe, had ostensibly withdrawn from governing because they had received Recruit stock in last year's influence-peddling scandal. Kaifu had received no stock -- only some donations that came before the company became enmeshed in controversy.
Despite their ostensible withdrawal, however, the party brokers appeared to be in full control of Kaifu until the Feb. 18 election. But after leading the LDP to victory, Kaifu asserted himself more strongly, in particular defying the faction leaders by refusing to allow any Recruit-tainted politicians into his Cabinet.
Watanabe, who had choices rejected for ministerial and vice ministerial posts, used unusually strong language in condemning Kaifu's behavior, saying he had gone "beyond anger" and was "flabbergasted."
"To stick to trivial things and forget the fundamentals is very serious," Watanabe said in a television interview today. "Politicians are not gods. What matters is what we do for the people."
And Watanabe seized on a report in the Weekly Bunshun magazine that Kaifu had received 26.3 million yen in contributions from Recruit ($176,000 at today's exchange rate), not 14.4 million yen as Kaifu said last August. The magazine said its report was based on lists obtained from the Recruit company.
"The LDP as a whole will get into trouble if Kaifu fails to clear up the issue," Watanabe said.
Kaifu, who denied the report Wednesday, denied it again today when asked about Watanabe's comments.
Meanwhile, however, Kaifu's new labor minister, Shunpei Tsukahara, disclosed that he received 6.3 million yen ($42,000) from Recruit between 1984 and 1988. Although his donations, like Kaifu's, came before the scandal erupted, Tsukahara received the largest sums when he was serving as vice minister of labor and thus in a position to potentially influence Recruit's job-listing business. Other former labor officials are now on trial for allegedly using their positions to help Recruit in exchange for money, stock or other favors.
The labor minister's donations also came in bloc purchases of fund-raising party tickets, which in some cases have been used to evade legal limits on donations.
Tsukahara said he had done nothing wrong, but admitted that "people might not easily accept" his innocence. He claimed he had never checked until his appointment to the cabinet this week whether he had received Recruit money.
"During the time the Recruit case was an issue, I didn't have the courage to check it out," he said. "I would like to erase my sin by promoting political reform."