Were the public prosecutors politically motivated when they arrested and indicted a top aide to the leader of the No. 1 opposition party for seemingly minor charges? Why were the actions taken at a time when Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, is said to have a fair chance of leading his party to victory in the upcoming general election and becoming the next prime minister?

These are some of the questions that remain unanswered in the aftermath of the March 24 indictment of Takanori Okubo, Ozawa’s official secretary, for falsifying reports on political contributions allegedly made by a major construction company. These clouds hovering over the scandal have cast doubt on the ability of the law enforcement agencies to handle cases involving politicians, free from interventions.

Okubo was indicted for filing a report saying that large sums of contributions made to Ozawa’s funding organization came from independent political groups, even though he had known full well that the donations were made by Nishimatsu Construction Co., thus violating the Political Funds Control Law, which prohibits business entities from giving money to lawmakers.

Since it has been customary for prosecutors not to go so far as to indict a person suspected merely of falsifying political funding reports, there arose a suspicion that the action taken against Okubo was the beginning of an investigation into a more serious political scandal possibly involving Ozawa himself. This, however, has not proven to be the case.

Foreseeing that the case involving his top aide would not spread any further, Ozawa dismissed the demand that he step down from the top DPJ post. Speaking to reporters on the day Okubo was indicted, Ozawa declared his intention of remaining the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan and leading his party to a general election victory.

A political insider has confided that the prosecutors suffered a major defeat as they were unable to followup on Okubo’s indictment by arresting Ozawa or forcing him to give up his parliamentary seat as a way to take responsibility for his secretary’s actions.

There is nothing to justify the prosecutors’ actions just as the nation prepares for the general election, the insider contends, adding the charges against Okubo were quite minor.

“Even though the prosecutors say the investigations will continue, there is little or no chance of Ozawa himself being questioned. The best they could do, would be to maintain a political balance by looking into the donations given to Toshihiro Nikai,” the insider said, referring to the incumbent minister of economy, industry and trade and a prominent figure of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Within hours after Okubo’s indictment was announced, Tsuneta Tanigawa, deputy chief of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, made an unusual step of briefing the press on the proceedings.

He said that the crime committed by Okubo was so malicious that it shook the very foundation of the Political Funds Control Law; that Nishimatsu donated the money with a view to winning contracts for major public works projects; and that there were no political motives behind the indictment. These explanations, however, sound quite hollow.

Some of the lawmakers have expressed serious doubts as to why the prosecutors, who are not supposed to be involved in politics, dared to open Pandora’s box. One of them has even said, “If errors in a report on political contributions are to lead to an arrest, there won’t be any lawmakers left in the Diet.”

A number of reasons have been given as to why the law enforcement authorities arrested and indicted the secretary to the top opposition political leader in such a hurry: that the statute of limitations for part of the charges involving political funding was near expiration; that personnel changes were expected around the beginning of a fiscal year in April affecting members of the Special Investigation Squad of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office; and that arresting a suspect would become less significant if delayed until after the general election.

Within the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, however, there were arguments against early action for fear of being criticized for behaving in a “fascist” manner. Tatsuya Sakuma, head of the Special Investigation Squad, an elite bureaucrat with a secure future ahead of him, felt no need to perform a “great feat.” It was Toshiaki Hiwatari, prosecutor general of the Supreme Prosecutors Office, who gave a final go-ahead to arrest Okubo. One theory for this is that there was a fear that a DPJ administration would cause problems to public prosecutors and another theory is that the prosecutors wanted to repay the debt to the LDP, which helped them solve problems concerning secret funds that prosecutors could use to carry out their jobs.

A more likely theory is that the prosecutors simply jumped on a piece of information given to them by a whistle-blower from inside Nishimatsu Construction. They were told that Nishimatsu Construction gave huge sums of illicit money to a number of politicians on both national and local scenes. It is said that more than 20 politicians were on the list of recipients. Most noteworthy was a scandal involving a dam construction project in Nagano Prefecture. But the case had to be shelved for good, however, when Nagano Prefecture Gov. Hitoshi Murai’s secretary, a key person in the investigation, mysteriously took his own life after being questioned by investigators. Because of this, the target of investigation was shifted to the money being channeled to Ozawa’s organization.

As a reporter of a newspaper with nationwide circulation laments, all this appears to indicate that the Special Investigation Squad is no longer capable of performing its duties without help from outside sources, be they the taxation agency or securities regulators. Perhaps, its ability to carry out investigation on its own should not be overestimated.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the April issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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