Photo/IllutrationA disclosed copy of an account book shows 250 million yen was transferred in five installments on Sept. 8, 2009, into the secret fund account. The entire amount was then withdrawn on Sept. 10. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The government’s so-called secret funds may have been used to buy souvenirs, gauge public opinion ahead of elections and even further enrich royal family members overseas, according to people once in charge of the money.

Questions have long been raised about the use of the funds, which are officially called “Naikakukanbo-hoshohi” (Rewards from the Cabinet Secretariat) and supposed to be spent on the “smooth running of national general affairs.”

However, details on purposes of the money have been kept secret because the expenses can involve intelligence gathering, national security and other sensitive issues.

Under an order from the Supreme Court on Jan. 19, the government for the first time disclosed parts of documents on the use of the funds to an Osaka-based civic group.

The documents showed that 90 percent of the funds used fell under “Seisaku-suishinhi” (Fund to promote policies), a category that does not require receipts and gives the chief Cabinet secretary full discretion on how the money is spent.

But the documents did not reveal how exactly the money was used.

Former chief Cabinet secretaries, however, told The Asahi Shimbun that the funds have not always been used in the best interests of taxpayers.

One recalled that secret funds were used to buy souvenirs for an “overseas trip of Cabinet members” and to “partially cover the accommodation fees for accompanying government officials.”

Another former chief Cabinet secretary said secret funds were given to a foreign royal family for unknown purposes.

One source who used to be in the inner circle of a prime minister said, “An opinion poll was conducted using the secret funds to decide the timing to announce the dissolution of the Lower House (for a general election).”

But another source denied that allegation, saying the funds were “not used in the interest of one particular party or one political faction.”

Multiple government sources told The Asahi Shimbun that the secret funds are kept in a safe in the chief Cabinet secretary’s office.

The documents disclosed to the civic group on March 20 were related to secret funds used under three Liberal Democratic Party-led administrations.

They showed that an average of about 100 million yen ($946,000) in secret funds was used every month.

The documents also referred to a case in September 2009, when Takeo Kawamura was chief Cabinet secretary in the Taro Aso administration, that has fueled suspicions about misuse of the funds.

The previous month, the LDP lost the Lower House election to what was then the Democratic Party of Japan, and preparations were under way for the change in government.

According to the documents, 250 million yen was transferred from government coffers to the secret fund account through five installments on Sept. 8, 2009.

Two days later, Kawamura withdrew all the money under the Seisaku-suishinhi category.

Six days after the withdrawal, on Sept. 16, the DPJ took over the government from the LDP.

Even after the documents were disclosed to the civic group, Kawamura still refuses to say what the 250 million yen was used for.

“Secrecy to a certain extent is permissible, but we must question why they emptied the account after the (loss of) the general election,” Kenta Izumi, chief of the Diet Affairs Committee of the opposition Kibo no To (Hope), said at a news conference on March 22.

He said the particulars of secret fund expenditures should be disclosed after a certain period, and that the rules need to be changed.

According to a former director-general of the Cabinet Affairs Office who testified in the civic group’s information-disclosure lawsuit, he would request a move of money from government coffers to the secret fund account on the instructions of the chief Cabinet secretary.

The money is paid in a form of cheques, then converted into cash, and the cash is kept in the prime minister’s official residence, the former director-general said.

Lavish and dubious spending of secret funds was already widely known.

In 2010, Hiromu Nonaka, the chief Cabinet secretary in the Keizo Obuchi administration, revealed the dodgy handling of the secret funds.

He said he handed 10 million yen of the secret funds to the prime minister’s office every month, and 5 million yen a month to the chief of the LDP’s Diet Affairs Committee.

He also said that his predecessor had left written instructions about using the secret funds, including a list specifying “how much I need to take to whom, including political commentators.”