Long history of political corruption in Japan conflicts with honesty of general public
First in a two-part series
TOKYO — Crime and corruption have long been associated with Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Although Japan ranks reasonably high on the general Corruption Perceptions Index reported annually by Transparency International, holding the #18 on the latest 2021 ranking — far behind Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Singapore and Sweden, but ahead of France (22), the U.S. (27), South Korea (32), China (45), Thailand (110), and the Philippines (117), Cambodia (157), Somalia (178) — it seems not a year goes by without a major corruption scandal in Japanese politics.
In the news last year, for example, were a former LDP justice minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his smiling, telegenic wife, a member of the House of Councilors, who were both indicted on suspicion of vote-buying, offering over 25 million yen to local officials in return for supporting Mrs. Kawai in an Upper House election. In October 2021, Kawai was sentenced to prison for three years; his wife having earlier received a 16-month sentence, but one that was suspended for five years.
In August 2020, there were three corporate executives who were arrested for attempting to bribe witnesses in the trial of former LDP Lower House legislator Tsukasa Akimoto, who indicted for taking 3 million yen in bribes from a Chinese company in exchange for help with a government-backed casino project in Japan.
In May 2020, Hiromu Kurokawa, head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office, and a favorite of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose government tried to extend the retirement age for prosecutors to extend Kurokawa’s career, was forced to step down after a tabloid expose revealed he had illegally gambled on mahjong and did it despite a Covid-19 induced state of emergency that required nonessential outings be avoided, and had accepted favors in the form of taking luxury taxis hired by a major newspaper.
In March 2020, the widow of a Finance Ministry official sued the government of Japan, claiming that her husband killed himself after Ministry officials forced him to falsify public documents in a scandal that involved the Prime Minister Abe’s wife, Akie. State-owned land had been offered at huge discounts to a private school, the Moritomo Gakuen school, where Mrs. Abe was an honorary principal. The School’s headmaster and wife were arrested in July 2017 on suspicion of receiving illegal subsidies and it was discovered that government documents relating to the sale were doctored so as to remove the name Akie from them.
While all of this was going on, Mr. Abe continued to deal with accusations that he invited constituents to a government-funded cherry blossom party in Tokyo, which was meant to honor people such as athletes and celebrities for their accomplishments and that his office may have broken campaign laws by paying part of the cost for his supporters to attend a reception the night before.
The spate of simmering scandals caused support for the then Abe government to drop to the mid 30’s, as the Prime Minister offered up periodic apologies, noting that he was “painfully aware of his responsibility,” but had failed to take any concrete action to deal with the issues. He resigned in August 2020 citing ill health.
Veteran political reporter Tadaoki Nogami, 79, was moved to note Abe’s long history of disingenuousness dating back to his boyhood when he would lie about doing his homework.
Given the long checkered history of the LDP, however, the recent improprieties do not rank at the top of the list.
Major corruption scandals impacted several national elections in 1949, 1955, 1967, 1976, 1990, and 1993.
Prime Minister Abe’s maternal grandfather Nobosuke Kishi, a member of Hideki Tojo’s wartime cabinet, was responsible for forced labor and sexual slavery policies in China as well as the expansion of the opium trade in that country, and was incarcerated at Sugamo Prison as a Class A War Crimes suspect. However, the GHQ agreed to release him in return for his cooperation in establishing a conservative, pro-American post-Occupation government. In 1958, Kishi was elected Prime Minister with the help of the CIA, which secretly donated millions to the LDP. Kishi then oversaw the approval of the Security Treaty extension in 1960, keeping American bases in Japan, using yakuza manpower to overcome massive resistance from protestors.
Kishi’s brother, Eisaku Sato, become Prime Minister in 1964 and served for eight years, also under the LDP banner. However, his tenure was marked by a string of corruption scandals that earned the nickname “Black Mist.” Among them, LDP Dietmen were extorting businessmen for money and the speaker of the Lower House was dealing in fraudulent bank drafts.
In 1976, Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was implicated in a landmark bribery scandal that involved the government purchase of airplanes built by Lockheed, the American aerospace company. In 1988, an insider trading and corruption scandal involving the Recruit human resources company forced many prominent LDP politicians to resign.
In 1992, LDP kingmaker Shin Kanemaru was forced to resign his Diet seat when his relationship with organized crime became known. A search of his home by prosecutors uncovered enough cash, bearer bonds, gold ingots and other booty to ransom the island of Honshu.
In 1998, Ministry of Finance official Yoichi Otsuki hanged himself with a necktie in his apartment after investigators searched his office, while LDP politician Shokei Arai did the same in a Tokyo hotel after learning of his impending arrest for demanding special favors from a brokerage house.
In 2019, the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee resigned his position, in the wake of bribery allegations involving a scheme to obtain votes from IOC members from Africa to support Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics over bids by Madrid and Istanbul. There were accusations that the Tokyo organizing committee paid $2.3 million in bribes to secure a favorable IOC vote in 2013.
In 2021, a former LDP Economy Minister was indicted for illegal donations to his constituents in Tokyo amounting to around $10,000, a charge to which he admitted. He became the fourth LDP lawmaker to resign from office that year.
Japanese culture is a conundrum when it comes to the subject of corruption, because it features so many corrupt politicians on the one hand yet has famously scrupulously honest citizens on the other. Once I left my wallet on the densely packed Yokosuka Line with the equivalent of a thousand dollars in cash in it. A few days later it was returned to me in the mail, with a note from the person who had found it, saying, “Dear Whiting-san: Please be careful of your wallet.”
This was not an isolated incident. Japanese are taught from an early age, “Think of the trouble the person who lost the item must be in.” According to a TMPD report in 2018, to cite one example, $32 million in cash was reported lost the previous year, three-quarters of which was returned to the owner. Ubiquitous police boxes make such returns convenient. Unlike in just about every other major capital of the world, you can leave your laptop computer on your table when you visit the restroom at any Tokyo Starbucks — the franchise that began invading the city in the 90’s — with 100% assurance it will still be there when you get back.
However, politics operates by different rules.
The fact of the matter is that it is expensive to run for office in Japan and to create and maintain a power base. Not everyone can afford it. This accounts for the existence of second- or third-generation legislators in Japan (eg. the Kono family) who can benefit from existing structures of political influence.
One big reason for this expense is that Lower House terms are only four years and often end earlier if the Japanese parliament is dissolved by the Prime Minister. Thus fund raising for re-election is a constant concern.
Another big reason is that Japan is a gift-giving culture where people give expensive presents to important people in their lives — doctors, teachers, bosses, business partners — to grease the wheels of their relationship, so to speak. Politicians, being politicians, have more people to give gifts to and the line between gift giving and influence buying and selling in Japan’s power structure is often blurred.
Moreover, bribery is more difficult to prove in Japan, compared to other countries like the USA, because the prosecutor has to prove that the official received the money, did a favor in return, and understood that the money was meant as a bribe. The aforementioned Kawais described their payments as “celebratory cash,” among other things, to supporters, after victory at the polls. The above mentioned Akimoto described the ¥7.6 million he received from the Chinese firm as “speaking fees and expenses” for a trip to Shenzen he had made while he was involved in the process to legalize casinos in Japan. In these cases, however, the procurators were able to demonstrate other, more venal motives.
Still another factor to consider is the existence of bid-rigging in Japan’s highly developed construction industry, a common phenomenon in which bureaucrats award public works projects and are repaid with high-paying jobs on retirement. Yakuza gangs have long overseen the construction site labor supply, traffic control, workers temporary lodging and food, on-site security (meaning protection from rival gangs) and the corresponding off-site after-hours entertainments such as brothels and gambling dens. This politician/construction/ gangster complex bleeds the taxpayer dry. Structural engineer Hidetsugu Aneha was sentenced to five years in prison in 2006 for fabricating earthquake resistance data in reports to oversight agencies to cut building costs for construction clients
A related issue is amakudari, literally meaning “descent from heaven” and refers to the practice of government officials retiring into lucrative positions in businesses they used to regulate. It has been identified as a significant cause for bid-rigging. In March 2017, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (“MEXT”) disclosed that 63 current or former ministry employees had illegally negotiated with universities to secure post-retirement jobs for their colleagues.
Various laws have been passed over the years to counter political corruption but, as we have just seen, scandals continue to occur with striking regularity.
Perhaps one reason such corruption continues is that most people do not see a connection between their own lives and the ruling class and so do not feel personally aggrieved by the massive theft of national resources. They pay their taxes and have no idea where there earnings are going. Or maybe they know but they don't want to think about it. Politicians in Japan operate in their own self-contained world apart from normal law-abiding people — much like organized crime.
Another reason for continued corruption is Japan’s all important group dynamic where social harmony or wa discourages whistleblowers, who may inadvertently harm the collective welfare and damage the reputation of the organization. Lifelong sempai-kohai relationships and generational indebtedness between families also serve to restrict informants.
In fact, politicians convicted of bribery charges have emerged from prison “purified” to win re-election to office. Lower House member Muneo Suzuki from Hokkaido served a year in prison in 2011 for accepting a donation that was ruled a bribe. He was elected to the House of Councillors in 2019.
The aforementioned insider-trading Recruit scandal caused the LDP to lose power, but only briefly, and many of the cabinet members who had been forced to resign returned to political prominence later, including two prime ministers, Kiichi Miyazawa and Keizo Obuchi. Economy minister Akira Amari resigned over allegations he took bribes in 2016 but was never prosecuted. People seem accept this as normal.
As Albrecht Rothacher, the German political scientist, put it, “Political contributions — mostly of the illicit sort — are an essential lubricant of co-operative interactions in Japan’s fractious power triangle. Political corruption is endemic in a system run by an oligarchy operating in a gift culture.”
The heroes in this equation have traditionally been Japan’s prosecutors. They have historically been perceived as perhaps the only group in Japan dedicated completely and totally to seeing that justice is done. However, these days the prosecutors have their own issues of irresponsible behavior, seen with the aforementioned Kurokawa, as well as cases like that of Greg Kelly, and have much to answer for.
But that is the subject of another column.