Notebook

January 30, 2012 7:45 pm

A bad memory for big money matters

Would you remember a transaction involving 40kg of cash? I imagine I would find every detail hard to forget, writes Mure Dickie

How clearly would you remember a transaction involving 40kg of cold, hard cash? Being unaccustomed to such weighty sums, I imagine I would find every detail hard to forget. But for Ichiro Ozawa, powerbroker of Japan’s ruling party, a deal of just this size appears to have been less than memorable.

Mr Ozawa is on trial on charges of political funding violations. When I popped into court, I found him telling judges he recalled little about a transfer of Y400m ($63.3m) to his fund-raising body for a land purchase that is at the heart of the case.

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Mr Ozawa, one of the biggest beasts in Japan’s political jungle, says the money came from private savings kept in cash at his home. But prosecuting lawyers have so far failed to extract much more detail of the 2004 transaction, which they say would have involved a whopping total of 40kg in yen banknotes.

A Fuji TV fugitive

Mr Ozawa’s ordeal is the most closely watched trial involving a Japanese politician in years. Crack notetakers from all the big newspapers work in relays to jot down crucial testimony in time for afternoon editions. Yet it is not the only story of (alleged) crime and (possible) punishment that has been hitting the headlines.

One of the many pleasures of living in Japan is its social stability and the absence of the kind of urban no-go zones that disfigure too many western cities. But even though lawbreaking is relatively rare – the homicide rate is half the UK’s and a fifth that of the US – crime is as much of a media staple as it is in more murderous climes.

The escape of a convict in western Hiroshima city this month sparked feverish coverage, not least because it involved a Chinese man – crime by foreigners gets particular attention – and because breaches of security in Japan’s oppressively orderly jails are very unusual. This was the first in two decades.

Li Guolin, a convict serving a 23-year sentence for shooting at a police officer, had scaled a prison wall that was under repair and then fled in his underwear. In many countries this might be no more than a minor story, but in Japan it dominated headlines and TV bulletins nationwide. State broadcaster NHK even broke into normal programming to announce Mr Li’s capture after three days on the run. It turned out that he had made it only 2km from his cell.

Code of misconduct

Authorities also appear to be making progress against the mighty yakuza, the crime syndicates that have long dominated Japan’s underworld, commanding the loyalty of some 78,000 members and associates.

Over the past two years, local governments around the country have moved to isolate the gangsters from ordinary society by introducing rules that ban companies from commercial exchanges with yakuza, even when no illegality is involved.

The new rules last year prompted a temple that hosts memorial tablets for former godfathers of the most powerful group to announce that its members were no longer welcome to pay their respects.

Yet some police privately worry that putting pressure on the yakuza could actually increase violent crime by weakening bosses’ control over desperate hoodlums.

Crime groups may also lash out at businessmen who seek to cut ties because of the new regulations, an explanation offered by some observers for a spate of shootings of construction workers on southern Kyushu island over the past year.

Remember me?

The public was able to give a wholehearted welcome to the biggest law and order tale of recent weeks: the capture and indictment of Makoto Hirata, a former member of the doomsday cult that gassed the Tokyo subway in 1995.

Mr Hirata, who had been one of Japan’s most wanted for 17 years, gave himself up on New Year’s Eve and has been charged with abducting a cult member’s brother. But police celebration has been muted by revelations that the wanted man had a hard time handing himself in.

Local media report that when he first announced himself at the Tokyo police headquarters, he was turned away. Mr Hirata looked different from the likeness posted on notice boards around the nation, the Yomiuri newspaper quoted the officer involved as saying. “I thought it was a joke,” he said.

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