During the Edo Period (1603-1867), there was said to be a growth in the acreage of land developed into rice paddies without the knowledge of government authorities. These unregistered paddies were known as “kakushi-da” (literally, hidden fields) and “shinobi-da” (stealth fields), and naturally, their owners didn’t pay taxes.

In some regions, it was customary for the locals to gather once a year to pig out on the rice harvested from these under-the-radar fields. In the city of Wajima in Ishikawa Prefecture, this culture has been preserved to this day as a local tradition.

I should imagine that some feudal rice farmers, struggling for survival under crushing tax burdens, became resourceful enough to devise this method of gaming the system.

But the present-day equivalent of “kakushi-da” belongs to the super-rich whose assets are beyond the wildest dreams of average citizens.

The Paradise Papers, a set of confidential electronic documents relating to offshore investment, have been brought to light to reveal how billionaires and mega-corporations have taken advantage of tax havens on Atlantic islands and elsewhere.

A close friend and aide of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under suspicion of tax evasion for having transferred massive funds to one of those tax havens.

Major sports equipment manufacturer Nike, Inc. has been found to have increased its after-tax profits by transferring ownership of its Swoosh trademark to a paper company.

Cheating taxation authorities is apparently not the only reason why some individuals want to keep the flow of their money hidden. The Paradise Papers revealed, among other things, that U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross has had transactions with a gas company that has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As I understand that the Paradise Papers consist of 13.4 million confidential electronic documents, what has come to light so far must still be only the tip of the iceberg.

Law firms and financial institutions support their clients who take advantage of tax havens. The global economy apparently makes “hidden rooms” and “hidden vaults” available to the rich. There definitely exists a divide between people who are “above the law” and those who aren’t.

During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the income tax that was introduced and applied only to the affluent was sometimes referred to as “meiyo-zei” (honor tax). The meaning of this expression is something that billionaires and heads of mega-corporations, who think of taxes only as undesirable costs, would be strongly advised to mull over.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 8

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.