The battle against corruption in Japan suffered a major setback Tuesday as a former chief Cabinet secretary was found not guilty of accepting a bribe--despite having received more than $400,000 in funds from a favor-seeking businessman.
It was the first verdict involving a politician in the infamous stocks-for-favors Recruit scandal of 1988-89, which spurred the resignation of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and tainted every leader of the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Ultimately, a struggle for reform triggered by the scandal precipitated a split in the LDP that ended its 38-year stranglehold on power.
Tokyo District Court Judge Hideaki Mikami had ruled that in 1984 and 1985 Takao Fujinami, 61, who was chief Cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, accepted payments and stock favors worth $427,000 from Hiromasa Ezoe, 58, chairman of the Recruit Co. The firm publishes employment and education magazines, and Ezoe wanted the government to conduct its examinations for the civil service on a schedule that matched his publication dates, the judge acknowledged.
Mikami, however, declared that the money could be considered part of political donations that Recruit had been giving Fujinami regularly and said there was no evidence showing that he and Ezoe had discussed payments for favors that, in any event, had only a "thin" relationship to Fujinami's position.
The judge also ruled invalid a confession that Ezoe signed during pretrial interrogations but disavowed during the trial.
"This means unless we can produce evidence of a briber handing over money and saying, 'This is a bribe,' we can't get a conviction," one unnamed prosecutor was quoted as telling NHK, the semi-governmental radio and TV network.
Prosecutors, who sought a fine equal to the money Fujinami received and a jail sentence of 3 1/2 years, said they would appeal.
The judgment underscored the fact that despite extensive political reforms carried out this year, corruption remains as protected as ever. Under Japan's bribery laws, prosecutors must prove that money was offered and accepted to reward an official for using the specific powers of his office to carry out government actions.
So narrow is the definition that dozens of politicians who received windfalls from Recruit-arranged stock deals escaped indictment--including four prime ministers. Opportunities that Ezoe, who is on trial for bribery, arranged for them were likened to "picking up money with sticky hands."
"We carried out political reform in self-reflection over this incident," said Yoshiro Mori, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has regained a chunk of power as the major prop of Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's tripartite coalition.
Mori, however, indicated that the Liberal Democrats would restore membership to Fujinami, who left the party when he was indicted.
Only Monday, tax authorities offered another insight into politics as they announced the amounts of estates left by two prominent politicians, both of whom died in December.
Former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, convicted of accepting a $1.8-million bribe from the Lockheed Corp., left an estate valued at $119 million to five heirs, including his daughter, Makiko Tanaka, who is now minister of science and technology in Murayama's Cabinet.
Although mass media estimated the true worth of Tanaka's estate at $650 million, his daughter insisted that the family had done nothing to avoid inheritance taxes and said tax authorities had properly valued stocks in a multitude of family-owned businesses.
The late Foreign Minister Iichiro Hatoyama, a third-generation politician whose two sons now serve in the lower house, left an inheritance of $152 million, tax authorities said. No one in the Hatoyama family was ever accused of wrongdoing.