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“Five pass, four fail.”

That was a phrase long used to sum up the amounts of money — several hundred million yen — that separated winners from losers in Japan’s elections during decades of political corruption.

In today’s money, that meant a winner had to spend almost 550 million yen on everything from pencils to outright vote-buying.

Reforms that followed a backlash against money politics and corruption in the mid-1990s mean less staggering amounts are spent these days, and massive graft scandals are rarer. But costs remain high and finances murky.

“The reforms have played a positive role. There are still people who get arrested for bribery, but the amounts involved have become much smaller,” said politics professor Norihiko Narita of Surugadai University.

Narita, an aide to Morihiro Hosokawa when he headed a 1993-94 coalition government as prime minister, at the time the reforms were enacted, said campaign costs have fallen as well.

“I often hear that costs may have gone down 20 percent to 30 percent,” Narita said.

To be sure, election costs remain high and rival those in the United States, even though pricey paid TV commercials by individual candidates are banned in Japan.

“In Japan, in the case of Liberal Democratic Party candidates, the spending is said to be around 100 million yen to 130 million yen,” University of Tokyo associate professor Masaki Taniguchi said, citing a 1996 study that looked at spending over an election year.

Such costs fall short of average amounts spent by winners in last year’s U.S. Senate election but are comparable to spending by those elected to the House of Representatives.

According to The Center for Responsive Politics, a U.S.-based research group, 34 winning candidates in the 2002 Senate election spent $4.8 million on average in 2001 and 2002 combined.

Average spending by 435 winners in the 2002 U.S. House of Representatives election amounted to $898,184.

Much of the money in Japan is needed to pay for such mundane matters as printing leaflets and posters, hiring campaign workers and paying for office space and salaries for aides, analysts say.

LDP lawmakers tend to hire more aides than the opposition to cultivate local special interest groups like farmers, doctors and small businesses, political analysts say.

Former local government officials are often hired to keep close contact with such constituents. To fund those activities, LDP lawmakers have traditionally relied on corporate donations and fundraising parties.

That income still figures prominently, despite a decade of stagnation that has shrunk corporate donations and reforms banning such contributions to individual lawmakers.

Corporate donations came under heavy scrutiny after the Recruit shares-for-favors scandal forced the late Noboru Takeshita to step down as prime minister in 1989.

Public disgust with money politics led to political reforms in 1994, including the debut of single-seat electoral districts to replace multiseat constituencies that had pitted same-party candidates against each other in high-cost battles.

Other pillars included state subsidies for political parties, tighter rules on corporate donations and stricter disclosure standards. Corporate donations to individual lawmakers became illegal in 2000 and can now only go to parties.

But firms can still make de facto donations to politicians by giving funds to local party branches, which often serve as support groups for individual lawmakers and number in the hundreds, analysts say.

Critics say more reforms are vital.

The Democratic Party of Japan advocates a total ban on political donations from public works contractors and full disclosure of all corporate donations, instead of merely those exceeding 50,000 yen annually, as required now.

The LDP-led ruling coalition, in contrast, has proposed raising the ceiling for disclosure to 240,000 yen.

Skeptics abound, however.

“Things haven’t become clean at all. It won’t happen unless corporate donations are completely halted,” said Tokyo security guard Hiroshi Yamada, 38.

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