Last week the Asahi Shimbun reported on the relationship between Japan’s larger corporations and the Liberal Democratic Party. Since regaining power in 2012, the LDP announced it would cut corporate taxes at rates that are twice those proposed by the previous Democratic Party of Japan government, and in 2014 the LDP received ¥1.4 billion in corporate donations — or double the amount the DPJ received during the last year of its brief tenure as ruling party.

When queried about these contributions, the LDP said that they were processed by the People’s Political Association, the political funds group that handles donations “as a whole.” In other words, the LDP doesn’t make distinctions as to how much came from which industries or companies, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find out. Asahi asked automaker Toyota why it donated ¥64 million. The company said it hopes the funds help “realize policies and promote democracy.”

It’s easy to be cynical about political donations. Most people think they go toward election campaigns, but politicians also use them to carry out policy research since government subsidies are limited. Each Diet member receives salary compensation for up to three secretaries. Many employ more, and thus have to come up with their own funds to pay them. In some cases, secretaries are charged with finding their own sources of income, which explains the influence-peddling scandal that resulted in Akira Amari resigning as minister in charge of economic revitalization on Jan. 28.

The contours of the Amari scandal show how money politics operates. A construction company in Chiba Prefecture had to move due to a road project, and an official of the company visited Amari’s office to see if the politician could use his pull in talking the Urban Renaissance (UR) Agency, the “semiprivate” organization running the project with Chiba Prefecture, into paying a larger sum in compensation for the move. According to the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, this individual gave Amari and his secretary some ¥12 million for their help. In the end Amari admitted that money had been accepted, and so he stepped down, but what did the construction company receive in return?

Gendai Digital said that the official, Takeshi Isshiki, told its reporter that he had “the impression” UR is an organization that can easily be tapped for compensation when a prominent politician is involved. The company had been frustrated in its negotiations with UR for more money due to “damage” to its facilities caused by the road construction, but after Amari became involved discussions went “smoothly.” The company received an additional ¥220 million from UR in Aug. 2013, and then another ¥50 million last March. As if that wasn’t enough, last week it was revealed during a Diet session that the company pushed for further compensation when it discovered that the owner of the land it rented had illegally buried industrial waste on the site and UR had promised to pay for the cleanup. Amari’s secretary lobbied on behalf of the company for ¥2 billion, according to Isshiki, though UR officials told the Mainichi Shimbun that no sum was ever mentioned.

In a different Gendai article, former Finance Ministry official Yoichi Takahashi explained why UR is such a soft touch. UR is called an “independent administrative agency,” but it’s still part of the bureaucracy. Formerly the Japan Housing Corporation, which built massive government-funded housing developments before the 1990s, UR has for years resisted privatization, which would leave it at the mercy of the marketplace. It has done so by constantly employing “temporary personnel transfers” from the land ministry, effectively keeping it within the ministry’s orbit of influence but still beholden to politicians who could banish it to the private sector, which is what former prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Yasuo Fukuda tried to do during their administrations. Consequently, UR does anything that representatives of the ruling party ask it to do.

Had UR not been a de facto bureaucratic entity, Amari’s involvement on Isshiki’s behalf might not have been deemed technically illegal. By the same token, if UR was truly a private concern it wouldn’t have been as susceptible to Amari’s influence, something Isshiki understood and, as he brashly admitted to Gendai, took advantage of.

“The money I gave to Amari was nothing more than a thank you gift for his mediation,” he told Gendai, adding, “as well as a down payment for his new influence (kuchi-kiki).” He stressed it was “not a political donation.”

Now that Amari has left the Cabinet and his secretary has resigned, it is UR who is in the hot seat, and during Diet questioning its president, Ikuo Kaminishi, denied that the agency reached its decision because of Amari’s involvement. Though he admits UR met with Isshiki a dozen times and that Amari’s secretary was sometimes present (once he even showed up pretending to be somebody else), he insists that the “calculation” for compensation was “based on standards,” and therefore “appropriate.” Over and over, he repeated the same mantra: “We do not acknowledge that the secretary made demands to increase compensation.” UR has to be discreet about the matter, because if it’s known that the agency can be swayed so easily by politicians, then its “independence” is exposed as a lie, inviting scrutiny over just what it is that UR does and whether the government should pay for it. In the end, all the compensation given to Isshiki and the construction company was taxpayer money.

As for Amari’s secretary, who facilitated the scandal by carrying out the negotiations, he obviously did it for the money he needed to run Amari’s office in the Kanagawa No. 13 Lower House district, though it’s not clear it went towards the kind of policy research Toyota says its donations are intended for. Many media outlets have reported that he used the money “for private purposes,” but at this point who can tell the difference between private and public?

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