The Supreme Court last year overturned lower court rulings that had ordered the governors of Osaka and Kyoto to publicly identify many of the recipients of their entertainment and social expenses.
The rulings drove Kenji Kawata, a 54-year-old member of the city assembly in Ikoma, Nara Prefecture, to demand that the top court unveil details of its own expenditures in line with the Freedom of Information Law.
“I thought it would shed light on the Supreme Court’s principle on information disclosure,” Kawata said. “As an ombudsman activist, it was always my impression that the Supreme Court is the biggest obstacle to our activities.”
So Kawata was not surprised when the Supreme Court had blacked out the names of all the recipients in some 300 documents related to roughly 3.5 million yen of its annual social expenses between 1996 and 2000.
But what was surprising, however, was that the ink used by court clerks was not dark enough, leaving several portions readable.
The contents of the documents, which the court may have thought would never be publicized, were even more surprising: The readable blacked-out entries clearly show that the court gave many gifts to institutions with no apparent direct connection with the judicial system, as well as segments of the mass media.
Over four years through 1999, the court purchased 1,386 beer coupons and 77 sake coupons with a total value of nearly 1.2 million yen, repeatedly giving them to institutions such as 2Narita Airport Authority and Tokyo Station as gifts. It also presented the coupons to judicial press clubs, the Metropolitan Police Department and a police station in Bunkyo Ward on various occasions.
The documents, whose entries after mid-1999 are hard to read, suggest the court continued these practices until at least May 1998.
The documents also show that some beer coupons were passed out without specifying the recipients involved — beyond identifying them as “security-related,” “Diet-related,” and even “related institutions.”
All of the recipients that were identified said they have no records of such transactions and could neither confirm nor deny they had received any beer coupons, even though the court documents indicate they were given 40 or more coupons at a time on numerous occasions.
Spokesmen representing Narita airport and Tokyo Station said it is highly unlikely they would receive such gifts from a government organ every year, especially from the judiciary.
A Supreme Court spokesman declined to answer any questions, suggesting that inquiries should be directed toward those recipients in the documents whose names are legible.
Revealing the beneficiaries of the court’s social outlays may “disturb administrative procedures,” he said, suggesting disclosure would invite trouble for the recipients. He thus claimed that the court has a legal right to conceal their identities.
The court even refused to acknowledge that many of the blacked-out items are legible. “We do not need to answer any question concerning the blacked-out portions,” he said, without elaborating.
The records indicate that in addition to recipients with no apparent procedural connection to the judiciary, beer-coupon beneficiaries were also within the judicial system.
The documents show that between 1996 and 1999, then Chief Justices Toru Mioyoshi and Tsutomu Yamaguchi visited local courts across the nation on seven occasions.
For each visit, Supreme Court officials requested 20 beer coupons as part of their overall expenses, suggesting it was a custom for lower courts to receive presents when chief justices came calling.
But gifts tied to “kan-kan settai” (wining and dining among public servants) run counter to the judiciary’s own stance against such customs. Courts nationwide have ruled on several occasions that local government heads who spent taxpayers’ money on such gifts crossed the line and ordered them to reimburse public coffers.
The Supreme Court spokesman said the top court’s gifts were distributed not to the local courts but to “people outside,” via local court clerks, as rewards for services rendered to the visiting justices. He declined to specify who these “outsiders” were.
If the Supreme Court’s social expenses papers are accurate, the main beneficiaries are in the media. They show that beer and liquor coupons worth at least 110,756 yen were doled out to judicial press clubs over three years starting in 1996. Press club members were wined and dined to the tune of 928,407 yen in 1996 and 1997.
The papers show that the top court spent 359,651 yen to wine and dine reporters from two major dailies in 1996, along with 73,157 yen to entertain editorial writers.
The court also listed outlays for entrance fees at 11 sightseeing spots that chief justices and their entourages visited in Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea between 1997 and 1999.
Lawyer Teruo Ikuta, a former Osaka High Court judge, said the documents could be a record of “secret” fundraising activities.
“If no one acknowledges that they received such coupons or other favors, this raises suspicions that the top court raised funds secretly by padding its social expense outlays,” he said, alleging this tactic mirrors the fundraising efforts carried out by prosecutors’ offices.
“The country’s highest judicial authority may not be immune from the shady practices associated with the nation’s public organizations.”
Last month, the All Japan Citizen Ombudsman Association submitted an open questionnaire to the Supreme Court, demanding that it fully address such suspicions.
In its reply earlier this month, the court denied raising funds on the sly, insisting it purchased beer coupons and gave them out as gifts.
The court also said its social outlays, including the entrance fees at foreign sightseeing spots, are within the scope of “social norms.”
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