Japanese angered by light punishment for key political figure

September 26, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Japanese justice had its way with the country's leading political kingmaker yesterday.

Shin Kanemaru formally admitted that he had accepted $4 million in illegal political contributions from the head of a mobster-connected trucking company. So he was fined almost $2,000.

It was a slap on the wrist for the Liberal Democratic Party factional baron, whose support put Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa in office.

But it smacked of a privileged deal with usually untouchable prosecutors. The fine also instantly set off a wave of public outrage that threatened to overwhelm both Mr. Kanemaru's grip on power and Mr. Miyazawa's already shaky Cabinet.

The rare deal, as close as jurisprudence here gets to a plea bargain, "makes a mockery of the nation and the law," the usually circumspect Mainichi newspaper protested.

The deal, the mob connection and the protests posed a new test of how long the governing pro-U.S. conservatives can depend on re-election despite wholesale voter revulsion after more than two decades of ever-escalating political money scandals.

The deal's terms, confirmed by senior prosecutors who spoke only on condition of anonymity, permit Mr. Kanemaru, 78, to avoid a court appearance that might have forced him to testify who got pieces of the action when he distributed the mammoth contribution.

Instead, he agreed to pay a fine under Japan's political contributions control law. That law limits donations to $125,000 a year from any one source but provides a penalty of no more than $1,680 for those who break the rules.

The deal ended a standoff during which Mr. Kanemaru holed up in his luxurious home in a rich section of downtown Tokyo.

For three weeks, this white-haired political power broker, accustomed to banqueting with foreign leaders ranging from President Bush to North Korea's President Kim Il Sung, hid indoors.

By holing up indoors, Mr. Kanemaru got fullest value from one of the few cards he had to play -- a legal-social dilemma his case presented to prosecutors.

On the one hand, Japanese criminal law contains no power of subpoena. Thus, the prosecutors' only way of forcing him to answer questions would have been to take the rare step of arresting an elderly public figure on a charge many Japanese regard as a technicality.

Yet, legal experts and other commentators hammered away at the theme that less influential Japanese are sometimes arrested to compel testimony even in traffic cases.

From the outset, one of Mr. Kanemaru's chief goals clearly was to avoid becoming a stool pigeon by telling anything about other politicians.

Who got the money is doubly salient because of the politically brazen timing of the contribution.

Japanese newspapers say Mr. Kanemaru solicited the money at the peak of the Recruit Cosmos stocks-for-favors scandal, which forced the resignation of former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita.

The purpose, the papers said, was to create a fund that would enable the party to fight back against the political fallout from the country's farthest-reaching political scandal.

Yesterday's deal raises the possibility that lurid details of the contri

bution may never be confirmed on the public record. Newspaper accounts have had Hiroyasu Watanabe, former president of Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin trucking company, handing over so much cash he had to deliver it in a shopping cart.

Mr. Watanabe went on trial this week on charges of draining millions out of the trucking company and helping gangsters launder illegal money. He stunned Japan on Monday, the trial's opening day, by denying that any of the political contributions attributed to him took place.

His trial now becomes the public's best hope of learning how deeply the governing conservatives have become involved with the mobsters of the Yakuza, this country's organized underworld.

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