Japan

The murky politics behind Japan’s campaign financing

On June 22, former Lower House lawmaker Megumi Kaneko appeared on the Bunka Hoso radio program “Kazumi Saito News Wide Sakidori!” and talked about Katsuyuki and Anri Kawai, the married politicians now being investigated for allegedly buying the votes of local Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members in their Hiroshima Prefecture constituency for Anri, who was in an Upper House election battle with another LDP candidate.

According to Nikkan Gendai, Kaneko says it was customary for the LDP to distribute money freely during election campaigns when she was a lawmaker, that other people did what the Kawais have been accused of doing and that the custom remains. She was told that if she didn’t funnel money to local politicians, they wouldn’t help her in her election campaigns. The propriety of these funds is a legal gray area, Kaneko says, and it is now her aim to fight such “money influence politics.”

Following Kaneko’s comments, former Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama, an LDP member himself, tweeted that he had never been instructed to distribute money in the way Kaneko implied. Although the two seem to contradict each other, it would be difficult to say that one of these politicians is telling the truth and the other is lying, owing to that gray area that Kaneko mentioned. Nikkan Gendai implies that Katsuyuki Kawai was being singled out for a practice that is widespread.

A common belief about the Japanese judicial process is that prosecutors will indict someone only when they can guarantee a conviction. The Kawais are accused of using campaign funds to buy favors, but the use of cash for gift-giving is so prevalent in Japan as to make it difficult to prove. It is customary to give presents of cash for weddings and funerals. Politicians are expected to do this as well for prominent constituents even though it is illegal under the election campaign law.

Last October, then-trade minister Isshu Sugawara resigned his post after a weekly magazine reported that one of his aides had given ¥20,000 to the family of a supporter at the latter’s funeral. Had Sugawara handed the money over himself, he would not have been accused, since he could claim that the deceased was a personal friend. Using one’s secretary as an intermediary, however, makes the action political. Prosecutors, in an extremely rare explanation of their decision, later said they did not indict Sugawara mainly due to the fact that he expressed remorse.

The Kawai affair is more straightforward, and the recipients of the money are just as criminally liable as its distributors. Former Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto discussed this aspect of the case on the Fuji TV Sunday talk show “Nichiyo Hodo The Prime.” Hashimoto found it strange that only the Kawais were arrested. Even the politicians who returned the money afterward can be indicted because they did not refuse it when it was initially offered.

Even more peculiar is the news that some recipients admitted that the purpose of the money was to buy their votes, so Hashimoto, a lawyer by trade, assumes these politicians have been granted immunity in exchange for their testimony, a common strategy in other countries but rare in Japan. Since these transactions normally take place behind closed doors, it is difficult to prove they happened, so testimony from an involved party is important to the prosecution’s case.

Hashimoto won’t say if he thinks the Kawais are guilty, and seems surprised by the sloppiness with which they distributed the cash, since it is not illegal for one politician to transfer money to another politician in the same party as long as there are receipts and a legitimate purpose for the money.

An article in the Chugoku Shimbun on June 20 elaborated on this idea by saying that prosecutors may have decided not to indict the recipients because of its possible effect on local politics. Convicted lawmakers would be removed from office, meaning the local government would have to hold supplemental elections, which could end up having a huge local impact given that it would involve multiple seats.

However, professor Tomoaki Iwai of Nihon University told the newspaper that the Constitution mandates equal treatment under the law, so prosecutors must indict the receivers as well as the distributors of the cash, otherwise voters may decide that justice was not carried out fairly. At the very least, those who took the money are required to explain their actions to constituents.

The elephant in the room is the ¥150 million that Anri received from LDP headquarters for the campaign, and so it follows that prosecutors are probably tracing the cash back to its source in Tokyo, presumably Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was backing Anri Kawai over her rival, and the LDP leadership. Kaneko said out loud what so many in the media have been implying for decades, that Japanese politics is built on buying favors, an approach to an extent illustrated by the scandal surrounding last year’s cherry blossom viewing party and the pre-party seminar held at a swanky Tokyo hotel. The alleged purpose of both events was to thank Abe’s regional supporters and curry future favors from them.

Minako Saito wrote in her Tokyo Shimbun column on July 1 that paying for this kind of support has, inadvertently or not, turned into a form of intimidation. Saito reproduces media-derived quotes from local assembly members who admit that the Kawais’ offers of money struck fear in their hearts — fear of what would happen if they took it as well as what would happen if they didn’t.

One former assembly member said she was filled with loathing when she was allegedly told that the source of the cash was the prime minister. Saito says that, because of its provenance, the money seems to come with a curse, like something out of a Japanese horror movie — in the end, it all returns to haunt you.

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