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Secretarial problems claim ‘woman of integrity’

by Philip Brasor

Kiyomi Tsujimoto’s departure from the House of Representatives last week was caused by the misappropriation of money that the state paid to one of her secretaries as a salary. However, as with so many elected officials before her, the Osaka native’s main mistake, at least in the eyes of the media, was that she initially denied having done anything wrong, even though everyone else suspected she had.

Though the weekly magazines can be accused of exaggeration and cynicism, they very rarely make up stories about political malfeasance; probably because, as the only true alternative to the easily intimidated national newspapers and TV networks, they have a kind of self-appointed responsibility to get these things right. So when Shukan Shincho on March 20 reported that Tsujimoto was channeling the bulk of her secretary’s state-paid salary for her own uses, everyone believed it.

Still, the ensuing scandal couldn’t have been more different from the just-concluded media romp with Muneo Suzuki, whose own downfall Tsujimoto was instrumental in bringing about. Suzuki quit the party but remained in the Diet, while Tsujimoto did the opposite. Suzuki tried unsuccessfully to avoid giving sworn testimony on the floor of the Diet, while Tsujimoto seems more than willing to go ahead and spill her guts, even if it means jail.

But the greatest difference between the two stories was the mainstream media’s attitude. As discussed in this space last week, Suzuki was treated as a clown and a buffoon, in part because the media itself didn’t want to own up to its own passive role in his success as an influence-peddler. The media has also played a major part in Tsujimoto’s rise, but it’s been a more active, encouraging role. And while the press brought about her fall, they also offered her the means, several times, to break that fall or, at least, cushion the landing.

Tsujimoto was seen as the heroine of the Suzuki scandal. She called him a liar to his face on the Diet floor, on national television. At the time the Shincho story broke, she was still flying high on her PR victory. The media implied that this elation clouded her judgment. Her reaction was: How dare they accuse me of such a thing right now, in my finest hour?

The first crack in Tsujimoto’s armor came during TV Asahi’s Sunday-morning talk show “Sunday Project,” when she was interviewed one-on-one by political journalist Soichiro Tawara. Normally, Tawara is merciless with politicians, but he later told the Asahi Shimbun, “I wanted her to explain things she couldn’t explain at the press conferences, so I wasn’t as tough as I usually am.” As a result, Tsujimoto admitted for the first time that she “received” part of her secretary’s salary as a political donation and used it for office expenses.

In fact, at that point she was already under pressure from her fellow Social Democrats to quit the Diet. If the strained feelings between comrades in arms pointed to a serious case of disillusionment, Tawara’s softer tactics exemplified the media’s view of Tsujimoto as basically a woman of integrity.

That’s because the most glaring difference between Tsujimoto and Suzuki is their respective backgrounds. Suzuki is a careerist. Tsujimoto is an activist. The child of a broken home, she worked at a department store for two years to save money for college, and then helped establish the Peace Boat, a nongovernmental organization, where she met the politicians and journalists who would bring her into the spotlight. She became a fierce, coherent debater on “Asa Made Nama TV” (Live TV Until Morning), Asahi TV’s popular and influential all-night talk program, in the early 90s, before Social Democrat boss Takako Doi talked her into joining the party.

Doi has been described as running a talent agency rather than a political party, since she actively recruits women who have high profiles in the media (such as women’s studies professor Yoko Tajima and attorney Mizuho Fukushima, both of whom are frequent TV panelists). But the point is that the people who support these women are viewed as having a real desire to change society. The people who support Muneo Suzuki do so out of self-interest.

Of course, “changing society” can be taken several ways, and last week Shincho reported the “shadow” of the Japan Red Army in Tsujimoto’s past. But for the most part, the media has taken on the crusade that Tsujimoto pondered for a day or two before hitting the brick wall of reality and resigning (by dramatically removing her Diet badge in front of the cameras, a gesture the media adored). The reason she wants to be cross-examined is that she wants the government to debate the secretarial system that was her undoing and which she implies is abused by other Diet members.

Thanks to the scandal, the problem of secretarial salaries is now being thoroughly examined by the press, though, as always, it seems overdue. Why wasn’t it debated a few years ago, when Democratic Party member Joji Yamamoto — a former classmate of Tsujimoto, by the way — was convicted of a similar crime and sent to jail (he’s still there); or, more to the point, when LDP lawmaker Yojiro Nakajima committed suicide after being questioned about his own salary-siphoning stunts?

Tsujimoto’s obfuscations and miscalculations are too blatant for her to qualify as a martyr, but her resignation has had the effect of intensifying media criticism against the LDP as to why Suzuki remains in the House of Representatives. And it’s likely that Tsujimoto’s case will speed up the process of forcing the Diet resignation of another LDP miscreant, Koichi Kato, who had his own, very different, secretarial problems. You just can’t find good help these days.