OSAKA – The towering stone structure that is Osaka city hall sits like a fortress on Osaka’s Nakanoshima island. It might intimidate some who walk into its dimly lit marbled lobby, but not Yoneko Matsuura.
“It’s a monstrosity, isn’t it? Totally removed from the sense of ordinary Osaka residents, just like too many of the people who work inside,” the outspoken Osaka housewife said.
For the past 12 years, the 65-year-old Matsuura has been a regular visitor. But unlike the International Olympic Committee officials, foreign diplomats or American baseball players who drop by, the welcome she receives is usually less than warm.
As one of the founders of the citizens’ watchdog group Mihariban, she does not come to smile for the cameras but to demand information on how — and why — tax money is being spent and to pursue, in the courts if necessary, public officials who chalk up outrageous expenses.
For Matsuura, the road to becoming an activist began in 1990, when the city announced plans to build a large number of new school buildings. She began asking why there was money to construct buildings but not to hire more teachers or buy better textbooks and teaching aids.
“My requests for information on how the school budgets are drawn up and where the money goes were usually rejected. Or, officials would give out only minimal amounts of information, and even that was often censored.
“As I continued to demand to know where the money went and why it couldn’t be used to benefit students more directly, I learned that funds allocated for educational purposes were being spent on construction of school buildings and related facilities, and that the estimates for the construction costs were far more than anybody would consider reasonable,” she said.
What Matsuura said she discovered was a form of collusion between city bureaucrats, politicians and the construction industry that kept those construction costs high.
“It was then that I realized the need for an outside body to monitor how our tax money was being spent.”
At the time, there were other groups to monitor official spending, but they charged membership fees that Matsuura, and many other ordinary people, could not afford. Thus, she and several others decided to form Mihariban, which would work with, but remain independent from, other similar groups.
“The idea was to form a real citizens’ group, one where ordinary taxpayers could work to demand greater transparency and accountability, and to make people aware of abuses of tax money,” she said.
Today, Mihariban has nearly 250 members who live primarily in Osaka, but are also located as far away as Aomori Prefecture. Matsuura says that while the group’s main focus is Osaka’s expenditures, members in other prefectures turn to it for advice.
“For about the first decade or so, it was very difficult to get people to understand what we were doing. But as the media reported more and more tax money abuses by local officials, there was a change in attitude and we began to receive more support.
“Today, we get calls almost daily from concerned citizens throughout Japan who have questions about who we are and what we do. We don’t have chapters, per say, in other prefectures, but we always encourage people to do what they can in their hometown.”
Currently, Osaka Mihariban is challenging the city in the local courts over expenses racked up during a trip by officials to Sydney, just before the Olympics in 2000, demanding to know why the money was necessary.
“In Osaka and many other local governments, people remain conservative. The vested business and political interests still rule,” she observed.
“I have seen some positive changes, such as the enactment of legislation that has made local governments slightly more open, but there is still much to be done before we can say that Japan’s local governments are truly open and transparent.”