‘Irritating’ book of statistics no joke for political crusader

by Reiji Yoshida

The subtitle of a recently published book by political analyst Atsuo Ito sounds like a joke: “The most irritating data book in Japan.”

But much of the data in “Seiji no Suji” (“Figures in Politics”) is no laughing matter for voters and taxpayers.

According to the book, the Japanese Embassy in Paris spent 8.49 million yen in March 2000 alone to foot the drinking tab of the diplomats. The money, which comes to an average 274,000 yen a day, came from the “diplomatic discretionary fund” — a secretive Foreign Ministry slush fund that does not require public disclosure on its use.

But Ito said many Japanese diplomats he met overseas used vast amounts of the fund to wine and dine Diet members on overseas junkets and to entertain themselves with extravagant meals at the same tables.

Ito also describes in the book how 53.6 percent of the Liberal Democratic Party’s successful candidates in the 2003 House of Representatives election were “hereditary” lawmakers — offspring, grandchildren or other close relatives of politicians.

This dominance of such a political elite, who “inherit” local support bases and vote-gathering machines, is readily denounced as a feudal type of nepotism rather than a modern democracy.

Ito, a former director general of the Democratic Party of Japan, said his decades-long career as a nonelected insider in Nagata-cho has convinced him that the general public will take a greater interest in politics if it knows more about what’s truly at stake.

“To narrow the gap between politics and ordinary people, you have to start with explaining how politics affect their wallets and their entire personal life,” Ito said in an interview with The Japan Times.

“That’s why pension issues drew considerable public interest last year,” he said, referring to heated debate over public pension reform — an issue that delivered a setback to the ruling coalition in last July’s House of Councilors election.

In the book, Ito points out that taxpayers pay 157 million yen to elect each House of Representatives member in the form of government funding for election campaigns and 259 million yen to elect each member of the House of Councilors.

In addition, the salary and expenses of each Diet member cost taxpayers at least 63 million yen a year.

Still, 40.14 percent of the nation’s eligible voters failed to exercise their voting rights in the 2003 Lower House election, Ito said. Thus he urges voters to cast ballots anyway — even blank ones —- so the polling expenses don’t go to waste.

Ito’s book takes a cynical look at political data — and for good reason.

Once dubbed the “contractor for new parties,” Ito headed the secretariats of three parties that emerged in the late 1990s.

He had been a salaried employee at LDP headquarters in Tokyo for about 20 years before departing in 1993, the same time that dozens of LDP lawmakers defected, ousting the party from its decades-long stint in power.

He then helped the defectors create one new party after another in a bid to rival the LDP. He sometimes played key roles in media relations by collecting scandalous information to use as ammunition against the LDP.

The last party he served, the DPJ, which he left in December 2001, has since grown into the main opposition force and the LDP’s main threat, in terms of Diet members.

But Ito admitted he feels more of a “sense of emptiness” rather than a sense of achievement.

“It is true the (political realignment) of the past decade gave birth to the DPJ. But all other opposition parties were failures,” he said.

Of the 36 Lower House members who bolted from the LDP to form Shinseito in 1993, only four have retained Diet seats without ever returning to the LDP’s sphere, according to Ito. Others have either returned to or formed alliances with the LDP, lost their seats, retired or passed away.

Their revolt kept the LDP out of government from August 1993 to June 1994, when the party returned to power by forming successive coalitions.

“Japanese politics have basically witnessed little change,” Ito said, adding that he intends to analyze and learn from the failures of past political realignments in his bid to nurture people’s interest in politics.

“It’s quite easy to let politics be corrupt and decay,” he says in the afterward for another of his books. “All you need to do is allow people to be indifferent.”