A secretary to Toshimitsu Motegi, minister in charge of economic revitalization, has distributed incense sticks and pocket notebooks within his electoral district in Tochigi Prefecture.

At the Diet, opposition parties are questioning Motegi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet daily over the gifts, which they say could constitute illegal donations to voters.

The Public Offices Election Law prohibits candidates for public offices and related organizations from donating money and goods to voters. The ban is aimed at preventing the practice of vote-buying.

As an exception to this rule, however, local chapters of political parties are not banned from such donations as long as they do not carry candidates' names nor offer clues to the identities of the contributors.

Motegi, a Lower House member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has contended that there was no violation of the law.

Motegi has pointed out that his name was not shown on the packages of the incense sticks or notebooks. He said it was an effort by the LDP's local chapter to expand his party’s support base, and that the gifts were distributed by his secretary, a party employee, not himself.

But it is natural that the people who received the gifts from Motegi’s secretary assumed that they were from the politician.

During a Diet session, Motegi said the goods were bought by the organization that manages his political funds and donated through the local LDP chapter. That seems to mean that the donations were effectively made by an organization related to the lawmaker in violation of the legal ban.

In 1985, the Lower House adopted a set of guidelines for political ethics. Here’s one paragraph from the guidelines.

“We must commit ourselves to higher ethical obligations that make us worthy of public trust ... maintain integrity and make constant efforts to eliminate political corruption and raise the standards of political ethics so that we never face public criticism.”

Avoiding any act that could raise ethical questions in obedience to the spirit of the law, even if it is not an outright violation, is the obligation Motegi, as a Diet member, let alone as a Cabinet minister, should fulfill.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has a bitter experience related to the issue. In 1999, Onodera, in his first term as a Diet member, distributed packages of incense sticks bearing his name within his constituency with his secretaries.

The act produced serious legal and political consequences for him. Criminal papers were filed with prosecutors, forcing him to resign as a Diet member the following year. A summary order suspended his civil rights for three years.

The latest case is similar to Onodera’s except that Motegi didn’t put his name on the gifts nor distribute them himself.

The law should be revised to apply the ban on donations within constituencies to local chapters of political parties. It is the Diet’s job to rectify shortcomings of the law, if any.

Internal affairs minister Seiko Noda, who is in charge of issues related to the Public Offices Election Law, has made questionable remarks about the case.

As for the possible illegality of Motegi’s involvement in the donations, Noda said her ministry doesn’t have the authority to make effective investigations into such individual cases. But she nevertheless suggested that there was no violation of the law.

Noda argued that it cannot be said that such a donation is made in a way that is indicative of the name of the donor when it doesn’t show the name and is distributed by a secretary to the politician as a gift from the local chapter of the political party.

Noda’s argument could be interpreted to mean that any such donation is legal as long as the name of the donor is not shown and the item is handed out by a secretary as a gift from the local branch of a political party.

Is this the way it should be? Clearly, the Diet needs further debate on this issue.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 2