Spare a thought for Hiroyuki Cho. The 39-year-old purported “mastermind” behind the theft of large fiber-glass Peko-chan dolls in broad daylight from outside one of Japan’s most famous confectionery chains was last week handed a 7-year prison sentence for his crimes.

Cho’s harsh sentence is significant at the end of a 12-month period in which an unprecedented number of current and ex-Japanese lawmakers — and their friends in high places — have been hauled before the courts on charges ranging from defrauding the state, embezzling public funds, bribery and vote-buying to perjury.

Most have walked free.

Indeed, a glance at some of the most high-profile criminal cases in Japan over the past few months shows not just that the scales of justice are tipped massively in favor of the rich and powerful, but that common defendants have often been given unduly harsh sentences.

These cases highlight an arbitrariness within the judicial system that is worrying in a state where approximately 99.97 percent of indictments return a guilty verdict and the investigative system relies heavily on confessions and remorse as a means of deciding on punishment.

Lawbreaking lawmakers have made the most headlines this year.

In July, former LDP lawmaker Yukihiro Yoshida appeared in court on charges of vote-buying and conspiracy to misappropriate funds — to the tune of 30 million yen — in connection with the dental lobby.

Describing his crime as “vicious and masterful,” Judge Toshiya Kawamura nevertheless allowed Yoshida to walk, handing him a suspended three-year sentence.

In June, Jitsuo Inagaki, a former state minister for Hokkaido and Okinawa development was convicted of attempting to rip off mainly elderly investors by illegally selling investment products that promised high returns and guaranteed the principal.

Inagaki conspired with his partners to purloin some 24 million yen from 24 investors. The judge described Inagaki as being “fully aware of the illicit nature of his actions and bearing particularly heavy criminal responsibility.” His punishment? A suspended two-year term.

Less fortunate, or connected, however, were two enterprising fraudsters who, earlier this month, were sentenced by a Fukuoka court to prison terms of five and seven years for handling fake 500 yen coins.

Presiding Judge Toshiyuki Tani said the two men — who were nabbed trying to launder 9 million yen worth of coins — should be severely punished because their crime “significantly undermined the public’s confidence in currency.”

Sadao Usuda, the former president of the Japan Dental Association, can count himself lucky then that the charge of “undermining public confidence” has apparently not been enshrined as a sentencing basis in Japan.

He was found guilty in June of providing an undeclared 100 million yen donation in 2001 to the LDP’s Hashimoto faction. He was also found guilty of bribery and embezzlement.

The court noted the ill effect that Usuda’s crimes would have on public confidence in the political system but, on account of his guilty plea and deep remorse, settled on a suspended three-year suspended sentence for his “vicious crime.”

Equally indulged was a former official at a Labor Ministry bureau in Hiroshima, sentenced in May to a suspended two-year term for embezzling 10.3 million yen in public funds.

A less forgiving court in the same month handed an Iranian man a sentence of similar stiffness, though on an altogether different charge.

Ghadir Esmaeili, a legal translator, received a suspended 16-month prison term (on top of two months already spent in detention in a Tokyo cop shop) for obstructing justice — in strict terms, exercising his legal right to ask police why he was being told to show his gaijin card.

Esmaeili, 34, was arrested in April 2004 for failing to show his card to police. Prosecutors told the court that Esmaeili then threw his alien registration card at the officers, grabbed and shook one officer and ran away shouting obscenities.

Presiding Judge Hitoshi Murase endorsed the prosecutors’ version of events, saying their account did not contain any irrational points — a reflection, perhaps, on either the reason of the judge or his perception of Japan’s Iranian population.

More strictly punished was former lawmaker Takanori Sakai, who in February began a 32-month prison term for fraud after he hid 168 million yen in donations received from companies and spent 24 million yen of public money on a nonexistent secretary.

Sakai was lucky compared to Hogen Fukunaga, also up on fraud charges, but unfortunate enough to be the leader of a foot-reading cult rather than an elected official.

The founder of the Honohana Sampogyo cult received a 12-year sentence for bilking his followers out of 150 million yen in the name of religious training. The judge also described his crime as “vicious.”

But sentencing anomalies aren’t limited to the sphere of graft and theft. While a man convicted of fatally assaulting his grandfather in March 2004 was sentenced to three years after a court took into account the old man’s habit of making “irritating” noises, Briton Nick Baker is serving a 14-year sentence for drug smuggling after being convicted in a trial slammed by rights groups and U.K. lawmakers as a sham.

Discrepancies in the treatment of white- and blue collar and foreign criminals is not unique to Japan.

However, the justice system in this country tends to deem loss of face as punishment enough, while often incarcerating those with no face to lose for undue periods of time.

In doing so, the judges who act as the last line of defense in upholding justice are guilty of that which they appear to find so reprehensible in those before them — the undermining of public confidence, this time in the legal system.

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