TOKYO — THE long arm of the law has been shown to reach only so far in the big-time bribery scandal that has kept Japanese politics on edge for almost a year.
Prosecutors, who have tried to remain an independent power within a society that tolerates little challenge to high authorities, have failed in their attempt to start a court trial against Shin Kanemaru, head of the largest faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Instead, Mr. Kanemaru was able to avoid a direct indictment, a court trial, and a possible jail sentence for accepting $4 million from a large trucking firm, Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin.
He even avoided direct questioning by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor's Office, claiming that too many reporters were outside his Tokyo apartment for him to make an undignified appearance at the prosecutor's office.
As a result, the elderly "kingmaker" of Japanese politics was allowed to send only a written confession on Friday that he broke the Political Funds Control Law. He is expected to receive a "summary indictment" in absentia in a court session today which will result in a minor fine of about $1,600.
At the same time, prosecutors planned to move ahead with a formal indictment and a court trial of a provincial governor, Kiyoshi Kaneko, who admitted accepting $2.4 million from the Sagawa group in 1989.
In June, prosecutors reportedly suspended a probe of the scandal so as not to disrupt a July election for the upper house of parliament that the LDP heavily won.
Then, after Kanemaru made a surprise public confession on Aug. 27 that he accepted Sagawa money, a court trial began against the president of Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin, Hiroyasu Watanabe, in which prosecutors decided not to mention Kanemaru's name.
On the opening day of the trial on Sept. 22, prosecutors talked of "the dark side of the politicians' world" by pointing to ties between the ruling party, a crime syndicate headed by the late Susumi Ishii and Mr. Watanabe. But no names of politicians were given.
Prosecutors claimed that a top politician, presumed to be Kanemaru by the Japanese press, used his contacts with gang leader Ishii to quell right-wing protests and that he even bowed in thanks at a restaurant.
Watanabe, who prosecutors allege passed millions of dollars to top politicians, is charged with a breach of trust against his firm for passing out huge loans and loan guarantees to gangsters. Other allegations were made that Watanabe heavily influenced the 1987 election of the LDP's president, Noboru Takeshita, who became prime minister.
It is the alleged ties between Japan's mob, or yakuza, as much as the bribery of politicians that has brought public concern. Politicians have been seen at funerals of gang leaders, while gang leaders have gone to fund-raisers for politicians.
A trial of Kanemaru would have likely exposed him to further allegation of dealings with gangsters. Some analysts said prosecutors were cautious because the scandal cuts deep into the heart of Japan's political structure.
The soft-glove treatment of Kanemaru has outraged many Japanese and national commentators, who perceive that the prerogatives of power within Japan's unique political system have forced prosecutors to falter time and again in exposing suspected payoffs of top politicians by Sagawa, a company that sought government favors to expand its business.
Criminal law professor Hiroshi Itakura of Nippon University warns that the case sets a bad precedent for the principle of equality under the law. Even the normally pro-government Yomiuri newspaper stated in an editorial that "the political world appears to have a far different ethic than ordinary people" and that the unusual plea bargain granted to Kanemaru "would never be accepted by the populace."
Opposition parties plan to demand that Kanemaru testify in parliament on how the money from Sagawa was used to help LDP candidate in the 1990 campaign for the lower house. One opposition lawmaker, Yukio Aoshima, began a hunger strike on Saturday in protest.
Throughout the controversy, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa has remained oddly quiet in making any comment. As head of a lesser LDP faction and reliant on Kanemaru for being chosen prime minister a year ago, Mr. Miyazawa may be uncertain on how the scandal will eventually affect him.
An upheaval has already begun in the faction that Kanemaru headed until he officially resigned last month after his confession.
On Saturday, the faction's acting head, Ichiro Ozawa, submitted his resignation to Kanemaru, a sign that the elderly politician still wields strong influence. So far, Kanemaru has not resigned his parliament seat.
A public opinion survey by the Nikkei business newspaper showed that about 46 percent of 6,250 voters disapprove of the Miyazawa government, an increase of 3 percentage points from a June poll.
About 42 percent say political ethics and political reform are at the top of their priorities for the prime minister. Since taking office, Miyazawa has promised such reform but made little progress.