Lawmakers within the ruling coalition were left aghast by a scathing report submitted last week by a panel investigating the government’s handling of mad cow disease.
Criticizing the farm ministry’s “grave blunders” and “serious policy errors,” the report distinguishes itself somewhat from those complied by typical government-commissioned panels.
It was still a modest affair, however, compared with its draft, which was made public late last month.
The draft singled out the Liberal Democratic Party and its “zoku giin” politicians with vested interests — in this case agriculture concerns — as unduly influencing decision-making procedures at the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.
While references to the LDP and zoku giin were dropped in the final version, the panel member who penned this section of the draft said it succeeded in shedding light on the so-far taboo issue.
“The draft effectively serves to check these special-interest politicians intervening in government efforts to reform the country’s food-safety regime,” because they came under media scrutiny, said Katsuyoshi Iwabuchi, an editorial writer at the conservative Sankei Shimbun.
Zoku giin — literally meaning tribal politicians — are Diet members, mainly within the LDP, who work to influence national government policies in certain fields.
They are closely connected with supporters with vested industry interests and government ministries that have jurisdiction over them.
Defense, education, construction and medicine are other industries for which certain politicians serve vested interests. Their activities sometimes overlap.
Iwabuchi, 56, was one of the three journalists in a 10-member committee set up in November by the health and farm ministries.
Himself the son of a rice and beef cattle farming family in Miyagi Prefecture, the seasoned political reporter said he felt those who purport to be the guardians of farm producers — including zoku giin and the farm ministry — were putting their interests before that of the farmers.
Yet some panel members questioned whether they should directly mention the LDP and its zoku giin in the report.
“They said it’s not within the scope of the panel’s investigation,” Iwabuchi said.
Nevertheless, he argued that authorities would lose their last chance to regain public trust if the report emerged as toothless, in line with most panel reports.
“In the draft, I pointed out the responsibility of the ministries, academics, the media as well as consumers, so it would have been strange if we had left out that of politicians,” he said. “There was no other way to express precisely the truth of the matter.”
While covering the Prime Minister’s Official Residence in the early 1980s, Iwabuchi saw a group of politicians from rice farming districts converge to lobby the prime minister to lift rice prices.
They were known as “Viet Cong Diet members,” reflecting the Japanese words for “rice price,” which sound similar to the communist guerrilla force of the Vietnam War.
These lawmakers included Koichi Kato, a former LDP secretary general who this week vacated his Lower House seat over a tax evasion scandal involving his former secretary and over his own questionable financial conduct. His home district in Yamagata Prefecture is one of the country’s largest rice growing regions.
While Kato, a former diplomat, was usually considered a foreign affairs specialist, he was as much a farm lobbyist as his colleagues, Iwabuchi said. LDP politicians from urban districts likewise had vested interests in the farm industry, given the existence of suburban farming and cash-rich agricultural cooperatives, he added.
“So, farm-lobby politicians can be found everywhere,” he said.
Farm-lobby politicians over the years have earned a bad reputation due to widespread media reports of their high-handed pressuring of farm ministry officials to take action to benefit farmers.
“It was their job to bring back money to their constituents. The media labeling of zoku giin ironically helped promote their propaganda,” Iwabuchi said.
When the draft came out, it was naturally greeted with uproar in the Diet. Takami Eto, one of the most senior members of the lobby, reportedly yelled “you rude thugs!” at senior farm ministry officials upon learning of the text.
In the final report, the LDP and its zoku giin were replaced with “farm industry-related politicians.” Iwabuchi claimed that the revised wording did not come about as a result of political pressure.
He said, meanwhile, that he is content that the draft contains the words “LDP” and “zoku giin,” as this grabbed the headlines anyway.
“I am satisfied, because it served as a good occasion for them to engage in soul-searching,” he said.
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