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From baseball to mahjong, murky methods Japan’s lawmakers use to entice voters

Kyodo

From live music to mahjong parties, there is no end to how lawmakers’ political support groups try to court votes.

The resignation Monday of Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi over concerts arranged for voters has increased attention on the practice, but it is widespread — and usually within the law.

Obuchi’s money scandal surfaced last week, after the weekly Shukan Shincho carried an article over shady and possibly illegal spending by one of her two support groups

Political funds declarations by lawmakers’ support groups show that more orthodox efforts include offering tours of the Diet and policy briefing sessions accompanied by concerts.

But some of the spending is downright questionable, raising concern that insufficient regulation has allowed a form of political rot to set in.

Sakihito Ozawa, a Lower House member from Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), was a member of the Democratic Party of Japan in 2012. Back then, his supporters would arrange bus tours with a visit to the Diet.

The tours were aimed at providing potential voters with an opportunity to understand better how political affairs are handled.

Ozawa’s office said 36 people joined the tour in May 2012, and 43 people two months later. Participants had to pay ¥6,000 each.

The office declared that the costs and income did not match, but that the difference was only “a few” tens of thousands of yen. Ozawa said there was no comparison with the case of Obuchi. He said the way his supporters had used the funds was “essentially different.”

A DPJ lawmaker’s office explained why it likes to use live music. “It’s normally difficult to attract voters to briefing sessions about lawmakers’ political activities, so we offer live concert-style sessions. It’s also a good opportunity to promote local musicians,” said an official in Motohisa Furukawa’s office. Furukawa is a Lower House lawmaker.

Furukawa’s office held one such concert in August 2012 in Nagoya.

The financial figures from the event illustrate the thinking: About 1,700 participants paid ¥1,000 each, and the politician raised around ¥2.27 million. The figure included fees from advertising.

The expenses, meanwhile, which included the performers’ fees and the cost of hiring the venue, was about ¥1.36 million.

“We are using the funds properly and plan to continue such activities in the future,” the official said.

However, a financial statement submitted by a fund management body of one former Lower House member reported that the lawmaker spent ¥39,000 on watching a baseball game in August 2012.

In November the same year, the politician organized a mahjong competition, where he used over ¥110,000 for giveaways.

“They may be regarded as political activities. But the Political Funds Control Law is not tight enough and often causes lawmakers to spend political funds carelessly,” said political commentator Kichiya Kobayashi.

“If we don’t introduce any regulations to control how funds are used, it is very likely that such acts will develop into scandals that may cause Japan’s political world to degenerate in the future,” he said.