In a move last night that shook Japan's governing party Tokyo prosecutors arrested Shin Kanemaru, until recently the country's most powerful politician. They charged that he had evaded millions of dollars in taxes on donations to secret political accounts that he controlled in the late 1980s.
The arrest of Mr. Kanemaru, 78, seems bound to raise anew a series of scandals that the governing Liberal Democratic Party thought it had buried. But it is still unclear how severely it will hurt the party in general elections for the lower house of Parliament, expected later this year.
Mr. Kanemaru resigned as vice president of the Liberal Democratic Party last summer after admitting that he took almost $4 million in illegal donations from a trucking company and distributed it to other lawmakers.
Later, an intense public backlash also forced him to give up his seat in Parliament, after charges surfaced that he had used Japanese gangsters to help install his closest political ally, Noboru Takeshita, as prime minister in 1987.
But at the time he evaded prosecution on everything but a misdemeanor charge, which carried a fine of $1,700, or less than the top penalty for an overnight parking ticket in Tokyo.
On television last night, several commentators and politicians speculated that the intense criticism aimed at prosecutors for their decision not to indict Mr. Kanemaru earlier had forced them to search for new charges.
The arrest was the most significant in Japanese politics in almost two decades, since prosecutors brought charges against former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. The parallels are close: Mr. Kanemaru served as one of Mr. Tanaka's closest aides, and like his mentor, Mr. Kanemaru was arrested only after his political career appeared effectively over.
Also arrested yesterday was Mr. Kanemaru's chief political secretary and fund-raiser, Masahisa Haibara. Prosecutors descended on the two men's homes and offices, searching for evidence that could help cement their case.
At the height of his powers over the past few years, Mr. Kanemaru hired and dismissed a succession of Japanese prime ministers. Though he held few official titles, he ran the largest faction of the governing party, and his assent was necessary to pass almost any piece of important legislation.
Mr. Kanemaru, looking frail, was briefly seen last night being led off for questioning. The usual practice is for defendants to be taken then to the grim Tokyo Detention Center, but it was unclear whether Mr. Kanemaru, who suffers from diabetes, will be confined there.
After his forced resignation, the Takeshita faction split in two. Since then there has been enormous jockeying for power.