Japan Govt Further Rocked by Allegations of Off-the-Books Kickbacks

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, left, returns to his seat after responding to questions at the House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting on Friday.

Allegations that some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party received off-the-books kickbacks from political party fundraising revenue has now developed into a situation in which Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, who served as secretary-general of the Abe faction, looks likely to be removed from his post.

Within the ruling party, fears are mounting that the ‘blame game’ may spread to other cabinet members and senior party officials, making it ever more difficult for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida — already suffering from a low approval rating — to manage his administration.

Kishida handed Matsuno and senior members of the Abe faction — the largest of its kind, with 99 members — key government and party posts. This was because the Kishida faction, with its 46 members, is only the fourth largest faction, meaning it relies on cooperation from other groups, including the Aso and Motegi factions, which have 56 and 53 members, respectively.

The kickback issue has thus directly impacted the management of Kishida’s administration.

It is unusual for a chief cabinet secretary to resign due to a scandal, and it is difficult to gauge how much damage it could potentially cause to the Cabinet.

Matsuno has been working on resolving such issues as the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea and reducing the burden borne by Okinawa vis-a-vis hosting U.S. bases in the prefecture.

Matsuno has also served as a behind-the-scenes supporter in domestic affairs, earning Kishida’s trust for his solid work.

During deliberations Friday, Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura — who has also served as secretary general of the Abe faction — said: “I’m having my own political funds carefully checked again, and I’ll fulfil my duty by explaining [the findings] at some point.”

Meanwhile, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Junji Suzuki and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Ichiro Miyashita, both from the Abe faction, have denied receiving kickbacks.

A sense of crisis is burgeoning among the party leadership, with one top executive saying, “We can’t rule out the possibility that a string of cabinet members and senior party officials could be replaced in the days ahead.”

Depending on how things turn out, calls may even grow within the ruling party to replace Nishimura, as well as Tsuyoshi Takagi, chairperson of the Diet Affairs Committee and secretary general of the Abe faction, and Hiroshige Seko, secretary general for the LDP in the House of Councillors, both of whom are also under suspicion of receiving kickbacks.

‘Against the spirit of the law’

The special investigation squad of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office is now probing five LDP factions over alleged violations of the Political Funds Control Law due to failing to enter or making false entries in political funds reports in connection with the underreporting of party income.

Since last week, the investigation squad has greatly expanded its investigative capabilities by gathering prosecutors from across the country.

The prosecutors have already begun analyzing the income and expenditure reports of each faction’s political funds and have started questioning legislators’ secretaries.

The investigation is expected to get into full swing after the end of the extraordinary Diet session that closes Wednesday, with priority being placed on the alleged kickbacks within the Abe faction.

Some within the LDP have opined that the problem is not as malicious as it seems, with a member of the Abe faction saying, “It wasn’t taxpayers’ money, but rather funds that were raised by the lawmakers themselves and returned to them as expenses for political activities.”

However, a senior prosecutor pointed out, “The problem is not the kickbacks per se, but rather the fact that [the people in question] didn’t record them properly in their income and expenditure reports.”

The senior prosecutor added, “[Using such money] as off-the-books funds is an act that runs counter to the spirit of the law for clarifying political funds,” noting that the acts were conducted systematically and continuously as a faction and were therefore malicious.

The special squad is considering questioning dozens of LDP members, including those of the Abe faction, and is expected to continue its investigation with an eye on the political schedule, including the ordinary Diet session that convenes early next year.