Prosecutors let Ozawa go, for now

DPJ strategist gets room to breathe, but more attacks expected as probes continue

by and

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has for now avoided the nightmare of losing a key aide and arguably the government’s most powerful string-puller, now that Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa has dodged criminal charges over a shady land deal.

But opposition parties and critics alike say the case is far from over, with Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers indicating they aren’t ready to back off.

“Although prosecutors couldn’t find enough to find (Ozawa) guilty, his innocence hasn’t been determined,” LDP policy chief Shigeru Ishiba told reporters Wednesday.

Pointing out that three of Ozawa’s former secretaries have been arrested for cooking the books of Ozawa’s funds management organization, Ishiba hinted the opposition will go after the government hard during the current Diet session.

“Suspicions and doubts still linger,” he said.

Allegations against Ozawa center on the source of ¥400 million used to make a land purchase in Tokyo in October 2004. Ozawa insisted the money came from his own pocket, but statements by construction firm officials suspected of providing the money have said otherwise.

While Ozawa previously stayed mum over the case, citing the ongoing investigation, he broke his silence in January, declaring that prosecutors were conducting an “unacceptable” investigation and that he would fight to prove his innocence.

Ozawa isn’t out of the woods yet.

“Thursday’s decision means prosecutors couldn’t establish their case, but it doesn’t prove Ozawa is innocent,” said Nihon University political scientist Tomoaki Iwai. The case reached an unsatisfactory conclusion, Iwai said, especially given the vigor investigators initially showed in pursuing the allegations.

But Iwai, who specializes in political funding issues, said more is likely to emerge regarding Ozawa’s questionable land purchase because the statute of limitations on some allegations, including tax evasion, is still years away.

Prosecutors will probably keep looking for any signs of misconduct, he said.

With the burden off his shoulders for the moment, Ozawa is expected to come out swinging in the Diet session to advance his key policies, including granting suffrage to foreign permanent residents of Japan in local-level elections.

With an eye to wooing voters, the DPJ will also likely go forward with Ozawa’s pet project of reforming the Diet, submitting bills aimed at reining in bureaucrats and giving more power to lawmakers.

But the DPJ and the LDP agreed to hold sessions in mid-February focused on political funds transactions. These will take up the issue not only of Ozawa, but that of dubious donations to Hatoyama’s political funds management body by the prime minister’s megarich mother. Experts say the LDP will be turning its accusations up a notch during the sessions.

Nihon University’s Iwai said matters may come to a head around May, when the Diet nears the end of the session and preparations for the Upper House election get under way.

“If opinion polls suggest Ozawa’s presence has a negative effect on the party, he may be forced to resign,” Iwai said.

Even now, all is not quiet in the ranks of the DPJ. Some members are expressing concern over keeping Ozawa on as the party’s secretary general.

The most vocal of the critics is land minister Seiji Maehara, who told reporters Tuesday that DPJ needs to “display some self-cleansing capabilities” in the face of repeated scandals.

“It is important for those with responsibility to make their own decisions,” Maehara said.

Despite stressing that he favors Ozawa keeping his seat at this point, Maehara hinted that won’t be the case if there are more damaging revelations.

Senior DPJ lawmaker Kozo Watanabe also threw down a marker, telling reporters public opinion is what counts most and Ozawa may have a moral responsibility to to the right thing.

Fukashi Horie, a professor emeritus at Keio University in Tokyo, said that if the murmuring within the DPJ grows, Ozawa’s days may be numbered.

With over 70 percent of the public saying in media polls that they disapprove of Ozawa remaining on the job, Horie said the final judgment on the case will likely be made by the voters instead of prosecutors or Diet members.

“The DPJ won the general election in August thanks to unaffiliated voters,” he said, but added that recent scandals have already done damage, despite Ozawa avoiding indictment.

“It’s questionable whether they can win the majority” in the Upper House considering recent polls and the influence of the Ozawa case, Horie said.