Political gift culture refuses to die

October 21st, 2014 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Former Justice Minister Midori Matsushima faces the error of her campaigning ways in the Lower House on Oct. 15. | KYODO

Former Justice Minister Midori Matsushima faces the error of her campaigning ways in the Lower House on Oct. 15. | KYODO

With almost breathless speed, two of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s most recent cabinet appointments, trade minister Yuko Obuchi and justice minister Midori Matsushima, resigned after it was revealed they violated political funding laws. Matsushima’s downfall, which revolves around her free distribution of uchiwa (round fans) to voters, may have as much to do with political expediency as with breaking rules, but Obuchi’s use of funds earmarked for public use to purchase gifts and supplement recreational outings for supporters was clearly illegal.

Which isn’t to say it’s not common. As one anonymous veteran of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — to which Obuchi belongs — told Tokyo Shimbun, the Gunma lawmaker’s problematic actions used to be a fairly normal practice in the Diet. Obuchi is accused of using her political funds, which come from taxpayers in the form of seito kofukin (political party subsidies), revenues from tickets sold for fund-raising get-togethers, and donations from individuals and groups, to supplement “theater tours” for her supporters. Obuchi’s supporters each paid ¥10,000-¥12,000 to go to Meiji-za in Tokyo to enjoy a day of stage performances. However, in her required political funds report there was an obvious discrepancy. Since 2007, the amount received from supporters for these excursions totaled ¥11.9 million, and it is deemed they cost more than ¥60 million to carry out, with the difference being ¥53.3 million that came from Obuchi’s funds.

The veteran says that such jaunts for supporters were normally arranged directly by the politician’s staff, but ever since the law became more thoroughly enforced, lawmakers have entrusted the job to travel agencies so as to divert the trail of money.

In her own defense, Obuchi professed that she didn’t know much about the tours, and while such naivete is perhaps understandable for someone still so relatively new to the game, it must be pointed out that she “inherited,” as it were, her father Keizo Obuchi‘s constituency when he died in 2000, and that included his political fund reserves of ¥120 million, not to mention the “sources” of that money, meaning Gunma individuals and groups who counted on him to see to their interests. It also means she took on his staff, who obviously should have known better.

But theater tickets to see some over-priced enka star isn’t the most of it. What really indicated Obuchi’s ignorance over her risky exposure to scandal was the use of political funds to purchase gifts, a lot of gifts. Former politician and current Keio University professor Yoshihiro Katayama expressed surprise to Tokyo Shimbun when he heard about the scandal. “Are they still doing that?” he asked wryly with regard to political gift-giving.

Though the media focus was on infant goods and accessories from a store owned by her brother-in-law, the funds report also includes mentions of cigars, gift coupons, exotic foods, an expensive stole and ¥685,000 worth of clothing by designer Jun Ashida. All these items were purchased at expensive Ginza department stores and earmarked as kosaihi (entertainment expenses), which is usually code for “gifts,” though, apparently, some of the items Obuchi bought for herself. If she offered these items as gifts to people within her constituency it would constitute a separate crime. When it is all added up over the years, the money spent on these items comes to more than ¥100 million, which apparently isn’t a big deal for Obuchi’s camp. In 2012 alone she took in ¥180 million.

Gift-giving is a common custom in Japan that comes with its own set of priorities. Usually, gifts are offered to superiors — bosses, teachers — in the hope that the recipient will do well by the giver in the future. It’s why people slip a surgeon a box of pastries with ¥100,000 tucked inside to make sure he does his best when he operates on the gift-giver. Japan’s election and political funding laws are very strict about such gifts, since by the very nature of the gesture the giver expects something in return.

As Tokyo Shimbun pointed out, the supporters who partook of the theater tours probably felt they deserved the gesture because of their support and certainly didn’t think there was anything wrong about it. But the fact is, there are even strict rules regarding compensation for campaign workers. A candidate can provide lunch only if it is prepackaged and each volunteer gets the exact same item as the next volunteer. And it all has to be written down.

That’s why Matsushima’s uchiwa were such a problem. She was essentially buying votes. But Obuchi’s use of gifts is baffling since she seemed to be giving them to friends and family, as well as to herself and her children. There didn’t seem to be any expectation of returned favors, so the only explanation is ignorance, which, to some people, is even worse than venality.

In any case, political funds are only supposed to be used for political activities, not personal fulfilment. A politician who doesn’t understand how to break the rules without getting caught isn’t a politician at all.

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