The old and the new in Japan’s latest money politics scandal

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan

There is something old and something new about Ozawa, his secretary Okubo and the latest money politics scandal in Japan.

Corruption in Japan continues virtually unabated after ten years of reform(Photo Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

First, the old: this scandal shows:

● how Japanese Diet politicians continue to sub-contract out the task of raising political funds to their secretaries who became the primary target if a scandal ensues. The secretaries are still playing the traditional role of ‘fixers’ and ‘filters’ – ‘fixing the big money deals while filtering the activities so that ‘while money flows through the door, the boss never has to swim in it’*;

● that Opposition party Diet members are not immune from being caught up in money politics and bribery scandals. Indeed, many Opposition party Diet members have been implicated and indicted in corruption bribery scandals before. In perhaps the most famous money politics episode in Japan’s postwar history, one that rocked just about Japan’s entire political world (the Recruit scandal of the late 1980s), prominent members of the Komeito, DSP and JSP all received Recruit Cosmos shares and several resigned their seats. Komeito Party Diet member Katsuya Ikeda was one of the few who actually ended up getting caught and indicted. There are many other old and new examples of Opposition party Diet members being exposed for corruption;

● that the monies and other benefits steered by companies into the political world in search of specific policy favours (including public works contracts) are channelled to individual politicians (and bureaucrats), not to political parties. This kind of political corruption is very much linked to the role of individual politicians as interest mediators and business brokers (it is quintessential clientelism, as opposed to sectionalism and localism, other kinds of special interests of high prominence in Japanese politics);

● the old adage that a public prosecutor should not bring too much ‘chaos’ to national politics. In spite of Ozawa (and others) hinting at a conspiracy behind the timing of his secretary Takanori Okubo’s arrest, in fact, the Special Investigation Department of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office was all too aware of the potential political consequences of their action, conscious of the fact that if they let matters go much longer, they would have to arrest Okubo much closer to the next general election (to the DPJ’s great detriment);

● that politicians can almost always rely on the fact that there will be insufficient evidence for an indictment and subsequent conviction to be successful. In the meantime, denial is the best defence because prosecutors invariably rely on confessions as their main source of evidence. Both Ozawa and Okubo strongly deny any wrongdoing;

● that being tarnished by money politics is no barrier to political survival. It looks as if Ozawa will stay on as DPJ leader, and unless the PPO can get the dope on him, there’s little chance they could actually charge him with anything;

● that it is possible to make political capital out of scandal by converting the issue into calls for political reform (e.g. Miyazawa in the Recruit scandal). Ozawa has proposed that all donations from companies and organisations to political parties should be banned, knowing full well that this has little chance of succeeding with the LDP and his own party still relying on business and its offshoot organisations as their main bank-rollers;

● that the public works industry funded by the national and local government budgets remains the most reliable source of ‘money in exchange for favours’ for Diet politicians, thus representing an additional source of public funding for politicians.

Now for the new: the Ozawa-Okubo-Nishimatsu scandal shows how:

● Opposition politicians can still exercise influence over the allocation of public works contracts – presumably not by pressuring central government bureaucrats/semi-administrative agencies because they are not in government – but by pro-actively organising big-rigging amongst contractors (i.e. by coming in through the business end of the deal and prearranging winners of contracts for public works projects), something that companies usually organise all by themselves and which is usual sense in which dango is understood. Full marks for ingenuity, particularly when you’re out of power. Of course, as the most prominent politician from Iwate, Ozawa has continued to exercise a great deal of clout over local government in Iwate and even in Tohoku more broadly, and these local governments let out public works contracts too.

● that the primary figure in this kind of bid-rigging can be the secretary himself (e.g. Okubo), so the bigwig can remain at arms length (NB first point above).The Ozawa scandal illustrates once more how, after more than a decade of reform, the underlying realities of Japanese politics remain the same.

* See p. 105 of William Nester’s wonderful article in The Washington Quarterly in April 1990.