Japan from the inside out

Playing hardball

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 19, 2010

IT’S NOT DIFFICULT to understand ruling party Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro and his modus operandi. Think politics Chicago-style: bosses, brass knuckles, and enough money to float a battleship.

Since 2008, the public prosecutors’ examination of the contributions flowing into his political fund management group has resulted in the arrest of three of his aides. The reason Mr. Ozawa has escaped prosecution so far is assumed by many to be because they can’t quite get the ironclad evidence they need. The man himself is said to be angry because he devoted a lot of time to studying the court cases against his mentor Tanaka Kakuei and arranged his business accordingly.

He and his supporters have charged that the investigations are politically motivated. That might well be true; Mr. Ozawa does seem to be serious about reducing the power of the bureaucracy, Japan’s government-within-a-government. (He wants to transfer that power to himself, which would be scant improvement.)

He’s also hinted that he’ll fight back. He’s already suggested a reorganization of the public prosecutors’ office might be in order.

He hasn’t gone that far yet, but one of his minions is opening a second front in the offensive. At a meeting of the Cabinet’s Ministers, Vice-Ministers, and Parliamentary Secretaries on the 16th, Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Haraguchi Kazuhiro informed those in attendance that an audit of the public prosecutors would be conducted to look for slush funds. He said this was part of an evaluation of governmental administration.

When some asked him at the meeting whether this was to block the prosecutors from their investigation of improper political contributions, he replied that it was part of a thorough and comprehensive investigation and there would be “no sanctuaries”. That expression was a phrase popularized by Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro in 2001. (Sometimes politicians really are too clever for their own good.)

An Ozawa loyalist/yes-man, Mr. Haraguchi has been rumored to be a dark horse candidate for prime minister to replace Hatoyama Yukio. It’s a wonder he managed to keep a straight face at the meeting.

Of course, the investigation may turn up all sorts of surprises. Slush funds at the national and subnational level are as much a part of Japanese governmental operations as desks, chairs, ring binders, and filing cabinets. How else would they pay for their softball uniforms and taxi vouchers for the ride home following after-work drinks?

Now combine the new investigation of the investigators with the request made by the citizens’ group which filed the original criminal complaint against Mr. Ozawa that an inquest committee review the case. If that committee decides a second time that the case requires an indictment, the prosecutors are required to do so. There are also reports the prosecutors will be looking into income tax evasion.

If this continues, perhaps the Japanese media should consider embedding reporters in both camps the way the American news media embedded its reporters in the armed forces to cover the second invasion of Iraq.

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