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Japan's government is mired in the worst corruption scandal in three decades

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Japan's government is mired in the worst corruption scandal in three decades. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is struggling with allegations that politicians in his ruling party violated campaign finance laws, and the outcome could have a lasting impact in Japan and beyond. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters last week he felt a strong sense of crisis because of the scandal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER FUMIO KISHIDA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "I will work like a ball of fire," he said, "and lead the Liberal Democratic Party to regain the people's trust." But it's Kishida's approval ratings that are going down in flames. A Mainichi poll found 79% of respondents disapprove of his performance - worse than any Japanese leader in more than seven decades. Some Japanese even feel the scandal poses a challenge to one of Asia's oldest democracies.

HITOSHI TANAKA: Japanese democracy's strength is going to be tested.

KUHN: Hitoshi Tanaka is a former diplomat. He says that Japan has seen corruption scandals before. Like this one, they involved internal party factions and money. These scandals have brought down previous administrations, and Tanaka says it could happen this time, too.

TANAKA: And I have the feeling that the current political funds scandal may be deep enough to lead to regime change in this country.

KUHN: Changing the regime, he adds, could change policies, including towards the U.S. But support in Japan for its alliance with the U.S. is likely to remain solid, he says. Prosecutors, meanwhile, are looking into allegations that ministers and lawmakers took kickbacks for campaign funds they raised and poured millions of dollars in fundraising profits into slush funds, none of which was reported as required by law. Last week, Kishida sacked four cabinet ministers, all linked to the scandal and all from the party faction previously headed by the late former prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Tanaka says Abe was so powerful that his faction members apparently thought they could get away with flouting campaign finance laws.

TANAKA: And I guess that this is very much to do with the abuse of power.

KUHN: Since its creation 68 years ago, the LDP has been made up of competing factions, or parties within the party. The factions choose the party's president, who usually becomes prime minister. If that's confusing, just think of it this way.

HIROSHI IZUMI: (Through interpreter) The easiest way to understand factions is that they are basically groups who try to make their leader prime minister.

KUHN: That's veteran political journalist Hiroshi Izumi. He says that behind the current scandal is a struggle among the factions. There's no proof of that. But Izumi believes the result will be the end of the Abe faction and a big shift in power within the LDP. And that, he adds, may overshadow anything else Prime Minister Fumio Kishida achieves.

IZUMI: (Through interpreter) He will put an end to Abe's dictatorial politics, and Abe's faction, which symbolizes those politics, would be destroyed. I think that would be Kishida's legacy as prime minister.

KUHN: The outcome, though, depends somewhat on the prosecutors, and they're up against the clock. They can't arrest lawmakers while Parliament is in session, so that gives them until the legislature reopens - sometime in January - to build their cases and get their men.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.