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Inside Japanese Politics
Unbalanced Rule of Law

 There was a time when “Ryu-sama” was the fond nickname by which people referred to their prime minister. However, the same people are now regarding Ryutaro Hashimoto with distaste, not wanting to even remember that this man actually once held the nation's highest political office.

 “Pathetic” is the first word that springs to mind when I recall how Hashimoto tried to explain to the Lower House Deliberative Council on Political Ethics the scandal of the 100 million yen check involving the political faction he led until recently.

 Asked whether he had received the check, Hashimoto replied to the effect that he must have received it because everyone said so, which was in itself outlandish. Furthermore, if he had any sense of dignity, he would not have chosen an in-camera setting for a hearing of this nature. Unless issues relating to political ethics are discussed publicly, credibility is lost.

 On November 2, a group of journalists held a symposium on politics and money. The venue was near the Diet building, with former Diet member Muneo Suzuki being invited to speak. Noting that he had been imprisoned over a sum of 4 million yen, Suzuki complained about the unfairness of Hashimoto going scot-free for accepting 100 million yen, with only a faction secretary being arrested.

 Suzuki had a point. I would wager that this 100 million yen check affair was anything but a simple book-keeping oversight. The issue has an unpleasant odor.

 The difference between the fates of Hashimoto and Suzuki certainly does not strike me as being fair. Not that it will do any good bringing it up now, but I believe that what former Diet member Kiyomi Tsujimoto experienced for fraudulently receiving a salary for her secretary represented another example of a miscarriage of justice. After Tsujimoto, a female Cabinet member was found to have been paying an official secretary's salary to her domestic help. However, that case has since effectively been forgotten, even though the excuses this minister made were inane at best.

 What, moreover, of police slush funds? Justice has to be rigorous. Can we really expect fairness from prosecutors?

 The Lower House election fraud in Miyagi Prefecture is another issue that continues to bother me. Last November, Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) candidates Azuma Konno and Sayuri Kamata stood respectively in the Miyagi No. 1 and No. 2 electoral districts. To support their campaign, senior officials of the All NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone) Workers Union of Japan and other labor unions allegedly contracted an NTT-affiliated manpower agency to undertake telephone canvassing, paying the agency somewhere between 500,000 yen and 800,000 yen to perform that service. Those officials were arrested and indicted for “rewarding or promising to reward campaign workers,” which is prohibited under the Public Offices Election Law.

 It is true that the law does state that telephone canvassing staff must be unpaid volunteers. In the initial court hearing, the prosecution argued that paying people to make phone calls to solicit votes was no different from buying votes, with the judge handing down suspended prison sentences. That ruling was later upheld by an appeal court.

 This case is, however, full of contentious issues. For instance, it is customary for candidates to hire so-called 'uguisu-jo' (literally, bush warbler ladies), who are women who ride in campaign cars and appeal to passers-by to vote for particular candidates. Paying the uguisu-jo hourly fees is deemed perfectly lawful, which leads me to this question: How is that different from hiring paid temporary help for telephone canvassing? There is nothing clear-cut about the current election campaign rules.

 Also being contested in this case is whether it is appropriate to apply the “rewarding or promising to reward” clause of the Public Offices Election Law.

 What bothers me most, however, is that, even though the candidates themselves knew nothing of what the NTT union officials were doing, they will all the same be subject to the law's “guilt-by-association” clause and lose their Diet seats if the Supreme Court, in finalizing the defendants' sentences, determines that they served as organized campaign managers. The ruling of the highest court is, moreover, due soon.

 The current guilt-by-association clause is a result of the public outcry over bankrolled elections and the fact that only lowly campaign workers were being caught for election fraud while elected lawmakers were escaping punishment. Some people may argue that Konno and Kamata should have kept close tabs on what their campaign managers were up to and that, as the NTT union officials were election experts, there was no excuse for their gross carelessness.

 However, even the Liberal Democratic Party has begun to consider amending the Public Offices Election Law to allow remuneration for telephone canvassing. The party is recognizing that applying the guilt-by-association clause to this issue is too severe a punishment.

 What we need to do now is look at the overall reality of politics today, not view things from the pernickety perspective of lawyers.

 No harm has come to Hashimoto for pocketing that 100 million yen check. Moreover, there were also apparently Japan Dentists Federation donations that were filtered through the Kokumin Seiji Kyokai (National Political Association) before they reached their intended recipients in various circles. That is rampant “policy buying” par excellence but Koizumi has simply shrugged it aside, insisting that there were no “detour donations.”

 In the meantime, two Minshuto legislators could lose their seats for having “attempted to buy votes” by paying several hundred thousand yen to telephone canvassers.

 Something is not right.

 I have no objection to the rule of law itself. I cannot, however, stand this blatantly unbalanced application of the law.


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