When the prime minister's political secretary committed suicide, many saw him as a victim of the money politics entwined with Japanese culture and tradition.

Besides Western-style institutions like a parliament and free elections, Japan has customs that demand exchanges of gifts and favors and lingering ideals of absolute loyalty.Voters expect their representatives not only to bring pork-barrel projects to the district, but to help their children find jobs in Tokyo, attend weddings and send donations to funerals. Political secretaries spend much of their time going to family ceremonies and delivering obligatory gifts.

Results of a survey published in the newspaper Asahi said a legislator or his representative attends, on average, 26.5 funerals a month.

Ihei Aoki, Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita's closest aide, may have killed himself Wednesday because more than $1 million in donations and loans he received from the Recruit Co. helped bring down his boss, who had announced the day before he would resign.

"The tragic case of Aoki's suicide pathetically calls for a drastic reform of the money-oriented structure of politics," the daily Yomiuri said in an editorial.

Asahi said political aides "function as `cloaks' that cover up foul play." Of 13 politicians linked to the Recruit scandal, it noted, six took donations in aides' names rather than their own.

Aoki's main task as secretary to a top leader was "to raise money from big business and distribute it to legislators," said Kotaru Nogami, chief political editor of the Kyodo News Service.

"Basically, a secretary does everything and anything he is told to do and he has to carry out any order to perfection, even though specific guidelines are not given," said Chris Redl of Phoenix, Ariz., a political secretary to a legislator of the governing Liberal Democratic Party.

He said he was exhausted by the dawn-to-2-a.m. schedule of courtesy calls and parties with supporters in the Hokkaido district of his legislator, Shizuo Sato.

"I talked to another secretary who had to do this all the time," the American said. "He told me, `It's like the old days. You have to be ready to die for your shogun."'

Americans might see the exchanges of favors and money as graft or vote-buying, but in Japan they are considered social custom.

"When a politician gives money at a funeral, it's not because he's a politician but because it's a matter of Japanese custom," Sato said. "Now it may be necessary for us to distance ourselves from Japanese habits."

Among reforms an advisory group suggested to Takeshita last week was prohibiting parliament members from giving money at weddings and funerals.