Japanese prosecutors on Thursday decided not to indict ruling party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa over a political funds scandal, easing a headache for the young centre-left government.
Dubbed the “Shadow Shogun”, the 67-year-old Ozawa is credited with engineering the Democratic Party of Japan’s election landslide in August that ended more than half a century of almost unbroken conservative rule.
Prosecutors indicted three of his current and former aides, after earlier raiding Ozawa’s offices and questioning him over claims he laundered millions of dollars in bribes from a construction firm by buying a Tokyo property.
Prosecutors announced they would not indict the veteran politician, saying in a statement: “The reason for dropping the case is insufficient evidence.”
The prosecutors decided to press criminal charges against the trio of current and former aides of Ozawa, including ruling-party lawmaker Tomohiro Ishikawa, on suspicion of violating the Political Funds Control Law.
Ozawa — regarded by many pundits as the power behind the throne occupied by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama — said he planned to stay on as DPJ secretary general as the party heads into upper house elections in July.
“I don’t think I have to step down as the secretary general,” he told media, according to Jiji Press.
A bare-knuckle political fighter who defected from the conservative party, Ozawa has denied any wrongdoing, repeatedly saying that he left the details of any funds transactions up to his secretaries.
Hatoyama has consistently defended Ozawa, whom he replaced as DPJ president before the election last year when Ozawa stepped down over a separate political funding scandal, in which he also professed his innocence.
“I think that the decision was made in a fair manner,” the premier said. “The same can be said with regards to the three people who were indicted.
“As the top leader of the administration, I think that the prosecutors have made a fair decision. On the other hand, as the party leader, I’d like to apologise to the public for a (DPJ) parliament member being indicted.”
An unidentified DPJ executive told Jiji Press: “We are now over the hump — no more pressure for him to step down.”
But opposition lawmakers carried on their attacks against Ozawa.
“Whatever decisions prosecutors make, we will continue our questioning in parliament as long as doubts remain,” said the Liberal Democratic Party’s Yasukazu Hamada, a former defence minister, before news of the decision.
The scandal has dented the popularity of the ruling party, which took power with a promise of “people-centred policies”. Support ratings for the cabinet are now in the 40 percent band.
Political observers said that the funds scandal would inevitably affect the party in the upper house elections, in which the DPJ hopes to gain sole control of both chambers of parliament.
“I don’t think many people will be convinced that Ozawa was perfectly clean, even if that is the conclusion,” said Tomoaki Iwai, politics professor at Nihon University. “Now it’s the public’s turn to give its verdict.”