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Japanese Politician Charged in Payoffs Gets Light Fine

By T. R. Reid
The Washington Post

TOKYO

Prosecutors formally accepted a controversial plea bargain Monday that allowed Japan's most powerful politician to get off with a misdemeanor plea and a minor fine for taking $4 million in illegal contributions, one of the biggest illicit payoffs in Japan's long history of political corruption.

The prosecutors showed so much deference to Shin Kanemaru, 78, the chief kingmaker of Japan's dominant Liberal-Democratic Party, that they did not even make him come to court for questioning. Instead, Kanemaru dispatched a written confession from his Tokyo home, where a number of junior politicians have come in recent days to express their continued loyalty.

The press and the public have been less respectful, however. The prosecutors' decision to close the case with the payment of a $1,600 fine has prompted angry editorials and street protests. Critics have noted that the amount Kanemaru must pay is no more than the fine for overnight parking in some crowded Tokyo neighborhoods.

One protester splashed yellow paint on the wall outside the public prosecutor's building here. The paint-thrower was immediately jailed without bail and charged with defacing property -- a crime that carries fines 50 percent higher than what Kanemaru will pay.

In light of the controversy, prosecutors took the unusual step of giving an interview to The Washington Post to explain their action.

"We used all the legal authority we have," said Deputy Prosecutor Takeo Takahashi. "We gave him the maximum fine authorized by law for failing to report a contribution."

The prosecutors, who appeared to believe they would be admired for taking any criminal action at all against a man with Kanemaru's power, clearly were stunned by the sharp criticism of the plea bargain.

Kanemaru, a gruff but charming member of the national Diet, or parliament, is the biggest fish caught so far in the expanding net of Japan's latest political scandal, the Sagawa Kyubin case.

Officials of Sagawa, an express delivery firm that has been linked to the mob, reportedly dished out large helpings of cash, far in excess of legal contribution limits, to top figures in the dominant party and several in opposition parties as well.

News leaks, evidently from prosecutors, suggest that the Sagawa case could become the biggest payoff scandal ever in a political system that seems to hatch a major new scandal every year. The Sagawa case involved such huge sums that just handing over the cash became problematic; Kanemaru's $4 million reportedly was delivered to him in a grocery cart jammed full of 10,000-yen bills.

Moreover, Sagawa officials evidently helped bring Kanemaru and other top politicians together with leaders of Japan's yakuza, the organized crime syndicates.

Untouched so far by the Sagawa case is Liberal-Democratic Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. Although Kanemaru has served as his political patron and chief supporter within the party, Miyazawa has kept silent on the case and has conspicuously declined to join the politicians publicly rushing to Kanemaru's defense. With several other top Liberal-Democratic officials reportedly suspected of taking money from Sagawa Kyubin, the current case could actually help Miyazawa by tainting some of his competitors within the party ranks.

But the new scandal could undermine Miyazawa's power in the Diet. Opposition parties have proven skillful at focusing on scandal revelations to stall action on the Liberal-Democratic Party's legislative goals.

There is no evidence that Kanemaru used the secret $4 million contribution for his own gain. Instead, he parceled the money out to younger members of his party faction to be used for their re-election campaigns.

Eight members of the Liberal-Democratic Party took part in a long discussion of the case with this correspondent over the weekend. All but one portrayed Kanemaru as a decent man who was just trying to get by in a political system that requires huge amounts of money.

"He provides campaign funds to his faction members," said Diet member Shigeru Ishiba. "And without that money, you can't get re-elected."

Because prosecutors let him plead guilty without interrogation, Kanemaru will not have to face official questions about his alleged dealings with the mob.