Kanemaru arrest distracts from wider corruption

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IT WAS a day of 'regrets' in Japan, a collective sucking in of breath and shaking of heads in feigned disbelief. After the arrest over the weekend of Shin Kanemaru, once the country's most powerful politician, on charges of tax evasion, everyone in the political world was expressing regrets as if the whole affair amounted to a cancelled dinner party.

But beneath the surface some commentators detected traces of a trade-off, with Mr Kanemaru again acting as the scapegoat for the collective sins of others.

The chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, expressed his 'regrets' at the arrest of Mr Kanemaru, who apparently overlooked a 400 million yen ( pounds 2.3m) income tax liability in 1987 and 1989. Mr Kanemaru's private secretary, Masahisa Haibara, was arrested at the same time for Y200m of unpaid taxes. The arrests would, Mr Kono speculated, lead to 'increased calls for making transparent . . . the problem of politicians and funds . . .'

That problem has been dogging Japan's parliamentarians for some time. Kiichi Miyazawa, the Prime Minister, has repeatedly vowed to address the problem in his programme of political reform. But somehow he has not yet got around to it.

Yesterday Mr Miyazawa, who relied on Mr Kanemaru's support in 1991 to be elected to his post, added his name to the list of regrets, saying the arrest of his former mentor was 'regrettable'. When a reporter asked him if that was all he had to say to the Japanese people on the matter, Mr Miyazawa snappped back: 'There's really nothing more to say, is there? It's extremely regrettable, it's disappointing.'

Mr Kanemaru also had his own regrets to offer prosecutors yesterday as they questioned him. Asked where the undeclared money had come from, Mr Kanemaru said he could not answer, because if he did, 'it would cause troubles' for other people.

The unpaid taxes were not immediately linked to the illegal donation of Y500m from the scandal-ridden Sagawa trucking company, which caused Mr Kanemaru to resign from politics last year. But prosecutors discovered that Mr Kanemaru and his secretary had built up a slush fund of Y4,000m in anonymous bank debentures since 1986.

Much of Mr Kanemaru's fabled power inside the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) came from his ability to raise political funding. But as the Sagawa scandal broke last year, involving illegal donations to politicians and links between organised crime syndicates and cabinet members, the 78-year-old Mr Kanemaru became the scapegoat for the rest of the LDP. He resigned and was fined for illegally receiving Y500m from Sagawa.

But the paltry size of his fine - Y200,000 - left the impression Mr Kanemaru had got the better of public prosecutors, and that the Sagawa affair had not been thoroughly investigated. His arrest last weekend is seen by some as the revenge of the public prosecutors, who had lost face for their lack of perseverance last year.

But at the same time it serves to distract attention again from the Sagawa scandal and institutionalised political corruption, by pinning all the blame on a single individual who has already resigned from the political world.