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A nonpartisan group of lawmakers lobbying to get Japanese abducted to North Korea back and working on behalf of relatives of the missing has been a big help to Shigeru Yokota.

His daughter, Megumi, was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1977 at age 13.

“The politicians’ group helped the public become more aware of the abduction issue,” said Yokota, who also heads a group of relatives of people believed abducted to North Korea. Although Pyongyang has said his daughter has died, Yokota remains unconvinced and is still trying to bring her home. “The lawmakers also acted as intermediaries between our group and the government.”

Yokota said the lawmakers have set up meetings with government officials, championed legislation to impose economic sanctions on North Korea and accompanied his group when it visited Washington in March 2003 to seek further support from the U.S.

Since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi returned from his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in September 2002, the parliamentary group has become one of the most active and influential.

Parliamentary groups often consist of both ruling and opposition party lawmakers, and are unofficial organizations with shared interests in certain issues, including politically sensitive topics such as national security, constitutional reform and sports promotion.

When intergovernmental talks stall or official government channels fail to function, parliamentary leagues can play a pivotal role in diplomacy.

There are between 400 and 500 parliamentary groups at present, although many exist only in name.

While there is no detailed history of those informal groups, the Japan-Britain Friendship Parliamentary League, formed in 1961, is believed to be the first formed in Japan, according to the National Diet Library.

Many such groups promote friendly relationships with other nations. And some, whose members have strong personal ties with lawmakers in other countries, have played key diplomatic roles.

When Japan wanted to resume yen loans to China that had been suspended after Beijing suppressed the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, bureaucrats turned to former Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ito, then chairman of the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentary League.

During a visit to Beijing in September 1989, Chinese supreme leader Deng Xiaoping got Ito to agree to partially resume Japan’s official development assistance to China. This led to a full-scale resumption the following year, a senior Foreign Ministry said on customary condition of anonymity.

But are these parliamentary groups really worth belonging to, especially considering their membership costs?

According to a 1994 survey conducted by the Liberal Democratic Party, each LDP member belongs to an average of 82 parliamentary leagues, paying monthly fees of between 300 yen and 3,000 yen per group.

For some politicians, parliamentary groups are effective tools to pressure bureaucrats to alter policies, mirroring the clout of industry lobbies.

Bureaucrats try to lay the groundwork with influential members of such groups to ensure approval of government-sponsored bills by the ruling bloc prior to the bills’ submission to the Diet.

“It is like the LDP’s Policy Affairs Research Council,” only with a freer status, said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University. The LDP’s council is often criticized for allowing party members to revise bills before their submission to the Diet.

Opposition lawmakers often use parliamentary leagues to promote legislation thought unlikely to win Diet approval without the support of the ruling parties.

“Nonpartisan parliamentary groups are effective for small parties in pushing legislation and policies by using the influence of ruling party heavyweights,” said Social Democratic Party member Tomoko Abe, who belongs to about 30 parliamentary leagues.

She said bureaucrats willingly helped draw up a politician-sponsored bill to allow helper dogs to accompany disabled people in public places, after former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto chaired the league.

But parliamentary groups are often considered a hotbed of spoils, concessions, votes and donations, as well as publicity and other benefits that may accompany their lobbying.

The lawmaker group on the abductions, for example, seeks through its activities political benefits, including public exposure and voter appeal — activities deemed vital in winning elections.

The Foreign Ministry has been under pressure from members of that group after North Korean officials told Japanese lawmakers in December that because the North insists the five repatriated abductees are only on a temporary visit to Japan, North Korea is ready to allow the offspring of and the American husband of one of the five, to come to Japan if the five go to Pyongyang airport to collect them — a move Tokyo has been wary of.

“When are the abductees expected to go to Pyongyang?” a source quoted one lawmaker as asking. “I want to make sure I have a seat on the government plane when they fly to Pyongyang.”

Iwai of Nihon University said politicians have sought concessions on official development assistance via bilateral parliamentary groups in the past decade.

The amount of ODA continued to grow during the 1990s, despite Japan’s sluggish economy.

In 2002, former LDP lawmaker Muneo Suzuki, currently on trial for bribery, was accused of receiving about 7 million yen in political donations from 11 corporations that were awarded ODA projects in Africa.

At the time, Suzuki, who chaired some 16 parliamentary groups dealing with African countries, reportedly promised to consider offering Japanese loans for a hydroelectric power station in Kenya before the government had made a final decision.

Not all parliamentary leagues are active, however.

LDP lawmaker Taro Kono said he left most of the bilateral friendship leagues he belonged to because they were “inactive and useless.”

He said the only thing they do is host receptions when a leader of a country they promote ties with visits Japan.

“I was outraged when the Japan-Saudi Arabia Parliamentary League did not even gather for a meeting” when Japan’s Arabian Oil Co. lost its drilling rights for an oil field there in 2000, dealing a blow to Japan’s energy policy, he said.

Kono said he is focusing on policy-related leagues that have a clear goal, such as a group aimed at revising the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement and another promoting the display of genetic recombination products.

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