Kanemaru proves that crime pays

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The Independent Online
An extraordinary thing happened in a Tokyo courtroom yesterday. Shin Kanemaru, Japan's most powerful politician who has admitted receiving an illegal donation of 500m yen ( pounds 2.4m), was excused from the embarrassment of appearing in court, and given a summary indictment which carries a maximum fine of 200,000 yen. That is a profit of 249,900 per cent.

In terms of democratic accountability, it borders on a farce. To illustrate the sums involved, one magazine printed a collage picture showing Mr Kanemaru standing behind a pile of 500m yen in 10,000-yen notes - the money fills two suitcases.

Meanwhile, Kiyoshi Kaneko, the former governor of Niigata prefecture, who has admitted receiving a mere 100m yen from the same scandal-ridden Sagawa trucking company, is to be formally indicted in a court and could face three years in prison. That appears to be the end of the Sagawa affair, which once threatened to be Japan's biggest political bribery scandal.

At least 12 senior politicians, including two cabinet ministers and three former prime ministers who received millions of yen and whose names are known to the Public Prosecutor's office, are set to get off scot free. And yet again Kiichi Miyazawa, the Prime Minister, has talked of the need for political reform.

The last time politicians from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), including Mr Kanemaru, brought up the issue of reform was in the wake of the Recruit shares-for-favours scandal in 1989, which toppled Mr Miyazawa as finance minister and Noboru Takeshita, who was then prime minister.

Since Mr Kanemaru's admission that he received 500m yen from Sagawa in 1990, it has become clear that the flow of illegal donations to politicians was unaffected by pledges to clean up Japan's money politics.

The Sagawa affair seemed to have the makings of a Watergate- size scandal. To expand its trucking business through Japanese bureaucracy, Sagawa executives paid millions of pounds to politicians. The company issued loan guarantees of up to pounds 2bn to associate companies, including some associated with Tokyo's largest gangster or yakuza syndicate, the Inagawakai. The head of Sagawa's Tokyo office acted as a messenger for the LDP when they needed some dirty work performed by the yakuza.

But unlike the Recruit scandal, which toppled a cabinet at the height of Japan's speculative boom, the Sagawa scandal hit as the economy began to slow down. The Sagawa affair could be squashed because LDP fixers persuaded investigators that Japan did not need a scandal when it was on the brink of a recession.

Mr Kanemaru, 78, got off lightly. Nicknamed 'the Don', he is responsible for the appointment of the last three prime ministers, and has long been regarded as the head of Japan's system of political patronage. The Public Prosecutor's office called him for questioning twice, but he has refused to leave his house since 27 August when he first admitted to receiving the Sagawa money.

He said that there were too many journalists outside his house, but the implication was that it would be beneath his dignity as Japan's political kingmaker to appear in court. Finally, a deal was done last week by which Mr Kanemaru could make a written submission without appearing in person. Protesters accused the Public Prosecutor's office of setting Mr Kanemaru above the law.

But such protests are few, and the public shows few signs of outrage at the way the LDP is wriggling out of the Sagawa affair. Meanwhile, 'the Don' is whiling away the days playing mah-jong at home with his aides until the affair has blown over.