He began a fight against the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the owner and operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, in 2002. The plant has been spewing radiation since the earthquake and devastating tsunami struck Japan on March 11.
Sato was re-elected governor five times between 1988 and 2006. The 71-year-old was arrested in 2006 for alleged bribery. He claims that the charges were false and lodged against him because he blew the whistle about the lack of safeguards at the Fukushima plant.
He stepped down as governor in 2006. Since then, he has fought the charges of bribery in court. Sato wrote a book about his experience called Annihilate a Governor. The media often quotes him these days and he speaks throughout Japan.
Majiriox News talked with Sato on April 6 from his home at Koriyama in Fukushima prefecture about the plant and his court battle.
Sato and his brother, Yuji, who had run an apparel company, were accused of illegally obtaining 170 million yen (today’s rate about 2 million dollars).
Sato was not fined, and his sentence (two years in prison) was suspended at the Tokyo High Court, a lighter sentence than those imposed by a lower court. The prosecutors accused Sato of conspiring with his brother and of receiving bribes from former executives of Maeda Corp., a construction company and the lead firm of a joint venture that won the bid for the Kido Dam project in 2000, and Mizutani Kensetsu Co., one of the venture’s subcontractors.
Q: After you resigned during your fifth term, you were arrested on suspicion of accepting bribes from contractors for a dam project and later indicted. You were convicted by the district and high courts, and you have appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.
You have maintained that you were arrested as part of a politically motivated investigation because you went against TEPCO, Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission, the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).
Yes, it was part of the reason for my arrest. I went against Japan’s bureaucratic system. I also went against mega discount stores coming into the region because I wanted to protect small businesses, as I represented the people of Fukushima prefecture.
In addition, I stood against the centralized system of the government. For example, Tokyo controls budgets for the prefectures throughout Japan. This has been changing little by little, and Tokyo is now talking about giving local governments more authorization.
Q: What surprised you the most about your trial and the judicial system?
I was surprised during the trial because I believed the Japanese judicial system was independent and impartial, but this was not the case. I learned that the Japanese believe that if the prosecutor says someone is guilty, then it must be true.
Q: But you signed a confession admitting your guilt. If you were not guilty, why did you sign it?
I signed it because the public prosecutors subpoenaed and threatened my daughter, my wife, longtime loyal supporters and business associates. In fact, my daughter, who has a mental disability, broke down after the interrogation and was admitted to intensive care at one of Koriyama City’s hospitals.
There are no rules regarding what time they can start the interrogation in the morning or end in the evening. And there is no lawyer in the room. The judicial system is based largely on obtaining written confessions given to police investigators in unrecorded interrogation sessions. If you are innocent but accused of a crime, there are few safeguards to protect you.
The prosecutors, especially Tsunehiko Maeda (* see footnote), told my loyal associates that they could destroy their companies if they did not cooperate. Some of those who were interrogated said they could no longer take the harassment and wanted to kill themselves.
Q: Did anyone actually commit suicide?
Yes, two people, but Koji Sugiyama, who worked with my brother, survived, and is now in a coma. The other one, who was an executive involved in the construction project, could no longer tolerate neither being held in custody nor the continued harassment.
I wanted it to stop, so I signed the confession.
Q: You mentioned in your book that one key witness, Kou Mizutani, retracted his confession and claimed you were innocent. Why did he retract his confession?
First, Mizutani confessed after being confined in a small room for many days and threatened with charges of tax evasion. Mizutani said he gave my brother one million dollars as a bribe to approve the dam project. In other words, he made a bargain with the public prosecutors in exchange for his confession against us. When the deal fell through, he went to prison and then retracted his confession.
Koichi Sakamoto, who worked in my office, testified against me and I suspect made a bargain with the prosecutors as well. Police found about $300,000 in his home. He never told them where it came from. He was pardoned without any further investigation and then testified against me. It’s in the trial records.
Q: Did the public prosecutors find any hidden money from you or your brother?
No, the judge in the case said there were no specific tangible transactions found from my brother or me, but he said we benefited from it (the Kido Dam project).
Chief Public Prosecutor Motonari Otsuru also said winning this case would guarantee him career success, which was quoted in the media.
Q: Why are you appealing the case? You did not have to pay a fine and your sentence was suspended.
I want to prove that I was not guilty and was forced to sign a confession. Once you are labeled a criminal, that label is difficult to shake.
The worst part is, even if I win this appeal, the person who committed suicide is not coming back, and I cannot restore what others lost (their face and businesses).
Footnote: The key public prosecutor in Sato’s case, Maeda Tsunehiko, was arrested for and found guilty of falsification of documents and criminal concealment in another case involving the postal service. He was sentenced on April 11, 2011 to 18 months in prison.