Politicians’ 11 million yen junket attracts criticism

Nine Osaka Prefectural Assembly members, including chairman Yoshio Matsui, are on an overseas junket to promote Osaka’s 2008 Olympic bid and to study administrative reform, despite opposition from fellow assembly members and a local citizens’ group.

The trip, which runs through April 10 and covers four countries, is taking place despite a 200 billion yen budget deficit for fiscal 1997 and the 11 million yen it is costing taxpayers. On March 27, six days after the prefectural assembly passed the budget, seven members of the Liberal Democratic Party and two members of the Democratic Party, Social Democratic Party and the Coalition of Osaka Prefecture Citizens, departed for a 15-day tour of Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

Their itinerary includes two days in Vietnam, one in Singapore, and two each in Brisbane, Sydney and Wellington. “As Osaka is interested in hosting the G-7 summit in 2000, the group studied our convention center to get an idea of how to build their own international convention center,” said Sandra Tan of the Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Center shortly after the group’s visit there earlier this week.

In Australia, the group is scheduled to meet with economic and government officials in New South Wales to promote Osaka’s bid for the 2008 Olympic games. “We first heard about the plans for a tour in December of last year,” said prefectural assembly member Toshio Shiotani of the Japanese Communist Party, one of the politicians opposed to the trip. “In light of the fact that the prefecture is in the red by such a large amount, many in the assembly decided it would be best not to participate,” Shiotani said.

Local citizens’ groups are also opposed to the use of taxpayers’ money in this manner. “When we heard that assembly members were still planning to travel abroad despite the huge budget deficit, we asked them to cancel the trip,” said Yoneko Matsuura of Mihariban, a watchdog group.

The original plan, formulated in fall last year, called for nearly 20 million yen to be allocated for 17 prefectural assembly members. However, due to a series of recent scandals, including the discovery of a secret slush fund for prefecture officials working late and the failure of the prefecture-funded Izumisano Cosmopolis waterfront project, eight assembly members decided to cancel their plans shortly before the trip.

Such trips abroad are common, Shiotani said, and have become something of a tradition following approval of the following fiscal year’s budget in March. “This year’s trip is meaningless, though,” Shiotani said. “Prefectural officials are going to Australia to promote the Olympics despite the fact that the Japan Olympic Committee won’t decide until August whether or not the city is Japan’s nominee.”