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40 years after ex-PM Tanaka's arrest for taking bribe, ex-prosecutor reveals probe details

Former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, center, is seen heading for a detention house after being arrested on suspicion of violating the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Control Law in connection with the Lockheed bribery scandal on July 27, 1976. (Mainichi)

July 27 marks 40 years since former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was arrested on suspicion of accepting a huge bribe from Lockheed Corp. in what was described by some as the "biggest postwar bribery case."

    Tanaka's trial at the Supreme Court discontinued after he died while he was appealing the high court ruling. A chauffeur for Tanaka's office committed suicide after giving statements over the former prime minister's alleged acceptance of a total of 500 million yen during a hearing at the Tokyo High Court, which subsequently found Tanaka guilty -- the same ruling handed down by the Tokyo District Court. The death of the chauffeur put prosecutors and Tanaka's defense team in a tug-of-war over the chauffeur's alibi. "Whether or not we could break his alibi decided the outcome of our investigations," said a person who was a senior prosecutor at the time. The then senior prosecutor revealed the whole background of investigations into the bribery scandal.

    A secretary of former Prime Minister Tanaka received 500 million yen in four installments starting on Aug. 10, 1973. The chauffeur witnessed Tanaka's secretary receiving the bribes on all four occasions. After Tanaka was arrested on July 27, 1976, the chauffeur gave detailed statements on the receipt of the bribe. The body of the chauffeur was found in a car parked in the mountains in Saitama Prefecture on Aug. 2, 1976. He is believed to have committed suicide. While most people allegedly related to the scandal denied the receipt of the bribe, the chauffeur's affidavit greatly helped prosecutors verify Tanaka's guilt.

    "The defense side will insist on the chauffeur's alibi. He was not there when the first batch of the bribe was accepted because he was on a family trip." These were the pieces of information on Tanaka's defense team's possible moves that the prosecutors received several days before the fifth hearing at the high court was scheduled to open on Oct. 31, 1985. The prosecutors were thinking that the defense side might have material evidence. On that night, Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office's trial division head Noboru Matsuda, prosecutor Norio Munakata and prosecutor Toshio Takano held a meeting.

    The three prosecutors exchanged words such as: "It happened, at long last. The chauffeur committed suicide suddenly in the early stages of our investigations and we have not been able to nail down the circumstances surrounding the case": "People concerned will be uncooperative"; "The first acceptance of the bribe took place 12 years ago. Can we get evidence to identify the date (of the acceptance of the bribe)?"; and "If it (evidence for the date of accepting the bribe) was proven false, then our envisaged picture of the case would be shaken." These hurdles looked quite high. The three prosecutors remained sober even after drinking a "1 sho (1.8 liter)" bottle of Japanese sake.

    The day after the shockwaves hit the prosecutors, the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office's special trial division mobilized two prosecutors -- Hideo Iida and Takashi Oizumi -- as well as all of its administrative officials to launch a fresh investigation. The verification process of the alibi formally filed by the defense side was postponed until the seventh hearing on Nov. 28, 1985, at the discretion of the court. But the prosecutors were hard-pressed to find counter evidence as quickly as possible. According to the defense side, Tanaka's office was on holiday on the day of the first acceptance of the bribe and the chauffeur left on a trip to Izu with several families including his relatives and visited his parents' home in Shizuoka on that day. He borrowed a van as a second car from his friends because there were many people going on the trip together, according to the defense side.

    After analyzing the pictures shown by the defense side, the prosecutors started contacting those people who had gone on the trip, but they were initially uncooperative as largely expected. The prosecutors repeatedly tried to persuade them to tell the truth by telling them: "Those people who are not guilty must not be punished, and those who are guilty must not be condoned. We only want to know the truth." Some of them subsequently started opening up to the prosecutors. The album of pictures of trips lent from one of them showed that they had gone on a family trip almost every year, but the number of pictures taken in 1973 and kept in the album was small. The prosecutors raised that question to one of the participants in the family trip. After a while, one of them called to say: "We found an envelope containing pictures." On the envelope it was written: "One week from Aug. 13, 1973, Izu Kogen -- Yuicho Higashiyama Temple."

    The date of their trip shown on the envelope was three days after the first acceptance of the bribe and the address written on the envelope was the chauffeur's parents' home in Shizuoka. It was important evidence but, if the defense side were to insist that the date was a slip of the pen, the prosecutors' argument could lose ground.

    Among the participants on the family trip was a "middle-aged fireworks man." The man apparently said that he had joined the trip from the very first day during his summer vacation fixed under the labor-management agreement at his company. But the 12-year-old attendance record was not available. The prosecutors, therefore, asked the company to look for the attendance book. A calendar listing holidays fixed under the labor-management agreement was later found. The holidays listed on the calendar fell from Aug. 12 to 14.

    The prosecutors also contacted the chauffeur's acquaintance who had lent the van. The defense side had already contacted the man, but the man had gone on a trip to Chiba for four days and five nights before lending the van. The admission ticket for a facility he visited during his trip was dated Aug. 8, and the man said that he had lent the van on Aug. 9 when he returned home. He said he had handed the admission ticket over to a defense lawyer. But after asking him more detailed questions, the prosecutors found that the man had had a policy of not traveling on weekends in order to avoid busy roads. Aug. 9 was Thursday, and if he were to make a trip for four nights and five days, his departure date would be Sunday. The prosecutors, therefore, pointed out the contradiction and told him: "If there is anything, please contact us."

    Three days later, a new piece of evidence was found. After being told about the contradiction, the man started looking for relevant materials again and found a receipt for a car ferry service between Kisarazu in Chiba Prefecture and Kawasaki. The receipt was dated Aug. 10, and it was found out based on the receipt number and the like that the ferry service took place sometime after the late afternoon. That meant that at 2:20 p.m. when the first acceptance of the bribe took place, the chauffeur was not theoretically able to borrow the van and go on the trip to Izu. It was a decisive blow made by the prosecutors just one month after they launched the fresh investigation and immediately before the seventh hearing at the Supreme Court.

    Thirty-one years later, Noboru Matsuda still clearly remembers the one month when he and his colleagues had looked for the evidence. He had also investigated the "Recruit" share-for-favor scandal as special investigation department chief at the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office and served as criminal investigation chief at the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office and as president of Deposit Insurance Corporation of Japan. Matsuda said, "I believe we achieved success because our stance to pursue the truth melted the hearts of people concerned. There may have been some help from the gods somewhere." He went on to say, "The truth is heavy."

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