Maehara donation trap easy to fall into, and rectifiable

by Jun Hongo and Alex Martin

The Democratic Party of Japan-led administration finds itself again on the brink, following Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara’s resignation Sunday for taking illegal donations from a foreign resident who has a Japanese name.

Experts say Maehara was a casualty of a law that sets an unreasonably high demand and suggest other lawmakers may also be treading on thin ice without even knowing it.

“To check every donation from every individual and the background of each is difficult,” Kobe Gakuin University professor Hiroshi Kamiwaki told The Japan Times. The expert on political finances added that it becomes much trickier in cases where non-Japanese residing in Japan with Japanese names are making contributions.

Article 22 of the Political Funds Control Law prohibits donations from non-Japanese individuals or entities. It is designed to prevent lawmakers from being influenced by foreigners. Maehara resigned two days after it became public that he received ¥250,000 in donations from a South Korean woman living in Kyoto.

The woman, whom Maehara has known since childhood, is an ethnic Korean who never became a naturalized citizen but uses a Japanese name. She has reportedly said she was unaware of the ban on foreign nationals making political donations.

Most countries prohibit direct or indirect donations from a foreign national to a lawmaker. U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign office in 2008 was forced to return contributions from a Kenyan relative of Obama, because foreigners who don’t have a Green Card are barred by law from donating to presidential campaigns.

In its Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act, the U.K. limits permissible donors to individuals listed on electoral registers, effectively making foreign nationals ineligible to donate.

Maehara’s time bomb went off at a critical point for Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who is hanging by a thread due to low public support and is being pressured by the opposition to dissolve the Lower House. Maehara also cut his stint short at a time when Washington and Tokyo are at a crucial stage over the relocation of the Futenma base in Okinawa.

“Maehara’s mistake may deserve criticism, but (the donation) is not something that poses a serious threat. Clearly it isn’t a case worth damaging Japan’s ties with the U.S.,” said Fusao Ushiro, a professor of political science at Nagoya University.

Kobe Gakuin University’s Kamiwaki noted that Maehara’s case sets a precedent that will force all lawmakers to check every donation in detail regardless of amount — and cost them their job if any stone is left unturned.

Speculation is rife that several lawmakers, in both the ruling and the opposition camps, may also unknowingly have received donations similar to those that undid Maehara.

In fact, Maehara is not the first to violate the law. A similar case came to light in 2007 shortly before Yasuo Fukuda became prime minister. It was revealed that a ¥200,000 donation to his camp came from a pachinko company run by an ethnic North Korean residing in Japan.

Fukuda quickly returned the money, claimed he was unaware of the donor’s nationality and the incident was quickly dismissed. He headed the Liberal Democratic Party, the ruling party at the time. Now that it is in the opposition, the LDP is looking to exploit any chance to discredit the DPJ.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Monday that anyone could unwittingly get donations from non-Japanese.

Asked if there was any chance he was receiving an illegitimate donation, Edano said he was unaware of any.

Pundits say the law itself may be in need of an overhaul.

The Political Funds Control Law bans donations from non-Japanese but allows donations from firms that are owned up to 49 percent by foreigners in terms of outstanding shares.

Considering the amount of money and the influence it could have on national politics, corporate donations should be of a much higher concern, Kobe Gakuin University’s Kamiwaki said.

Donations from non-Japanese residents will surely be up for discussion in view of the DPJ proposal to grant local voting rights to permanent foreign residents, he said.

Regulating online donations is also a new challenge, because it only takes several clicks and a credit card to contribute to a lawmaker’s campaign fund. Websites, including Rakuten Seiji, require a donor nationality confirmation, but such explanations are only in Japanese.

“To keep everything watertight is extremely difficult, if not impossible,” a secretary in charge of accounting for an LDP lawmaker in the Lower House told The Japan Times. The secretary, who asked to remain anonymous, said his office goes through a couple of hundred donations from individuals each year.

In addition to asking donors if they are Japanese, preventive steps include double-checking contributions from overseas or from individuals with non-Japanese names.

“It would be impossible to spot an illegal donation if we are given false information,” he said, indicating only a thorough nationality check would suffice.

And that is why, as arduous as the task may be and as demanding as regulations are, Maehara’s slipup could have been avoided.

“This was all about Maehara being extremely careless,” the secretary said.