September 14 was an inauspicious day for Ichiro Ozawa. First, the political heavyweight was defeated in an election for the leadership of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. Now it has emerged that on the same day, an independent judicial panel decided that he should also be indicted on book-cooking charges.
On Monday, the panel (comprised of randomly selected citizens) announced its decision—that Ozawa should be charged over his part in falsifying financial records of his fund management body. The ‘Shadow Shogun’ will be the first lawmaker to be subject to a ‘forced’ indictment from one of the newly-established panels. Lawyers appointed by the Tokyo District Court will indict him.
Yet it looks unlikely that Ozawa, former DPJ leader and secretary general, will be convicted. Elite prosecutors have twice failed to find enough evidence to convict him, and it’s doubtful that the court-appointed lawyers will have the resources to put together a strong enough case to determine Ozawa’s guilt in a legal process likely to drag on for months or longer. This is despite Japan having a 99 percent conviction rate for criminal trials.
Perhaps the most famous corruption case in Japanese history is that of late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. His trial over the Lockheed bribery scandal lasted years, but despite the clouds that hung over him, Tanaka clung onto his seat and maintained his political leverage. Ozawa, a disciple of Tanaka, is no stranger to drawn-out legal proceedings having reportedly attended all 191 sessions of Tanaka’s trial.
But will Ozawa carry on in the same vein of his mentor?
Editorials on Tuesday called for Ozawa to do the decent thing and resign as a legislator, slamming him again for his ‘inadequate’ explanation. His party will no doubt also be watching him closely, but has yet to define its stance. Katsuya Okada, the party’s No. 2, said Monday that Ozawa should make his own intensions clear, before the party makes any decision.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, no friend of Ozawa, must be reassured that his ostracizing of Ozawa and his political cronies from key government posts in a post-leadership poll Cabinet reshuffle seems to be justified now. Kan would no doubt like to see the veteran politician resign from his seat and step back into the shadows. But with Ozawa rumoured to be biding his time before making another challenge for the party leadership (gathering ammunition from Kan’s perceived bungling of the Chinese fishing boat incident), it’s anyone’s guess as to what the master-manipulator will do.
A large proportion of the public despises Ozawa. And it’s significant that it’s a panel of ordinary people that has, perhaps, started to hammer the final nail into Ozawa’s political coffin.
Ozawa’s powers of political reincarnation should not, however, be underestimated.