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Masuzoe clings to office as pressure mounts over funds scandal

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Japanese Communist Party representatives in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly announced Monday the party’s decision to submit a no-confidence motion against Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe, which could force the embattled governor from office.

Since late March, Masuzoe has faced strong criticism for inappropriate, personal use of political funds and public money. And despite promises to correct his “behavior as a politician,” some lawmakers and the public have demanded his resignation.

Following are questions and answers about the controversy surrounding Masuzoe’s handling of public funds.

What is Masuzoe accused of?

The scandal was first exposed by Japanese weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun in late March, which revealed the governor had spent taxpayers’ money on expensive and luxurious overseas business trips.

The Japanese Communist Party then revealed that Masuzoe had spent ¥213 million during eight trips to foreign capitals since becoming governor in 2014. In Tokyo’s rules on gubernatorial business trips, the governor is allowed to spend up to ¥40,200 per day on hotels, but the cost of his suites significantly exceeded that amount.

It later emerged that Masuzoe had also been using public money and political funds since before assuming his post as governor to dine out and holiday with his family, as well as using his official car to travel to his vacation villa.

All of the expenses were booked as work-related.

Why does Masuzoe’s misuse of political funds continue to spur criticism?

In May, Masuzoe asked two highly regarded lawyers, Zenzo Sasaki, who headed the committee that looked into former trade minister Yuko Obuchi’s money scandals, and Tetsuya Morimoto, to look into his use of the funds.

The probe, covering the period 2009 to 2014, found that Masuzoe had inappropriately used about ¥802,000 for stays at hotels and resorts and ¥336,000 for dining with his family.

They said two New Year holiday trips to a resort hotel in Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture, where he spent ¥371,000, could not be considered work-related.

The lawyers said artworks purchased by Masuzoe could serve to improve cultural exchanges with overseas guests, but the number of items, totaling 106, was too high. Two paintings, among the most expensive items, cost ¥580,420 in total.

Other items, such as calligraphy utensils and silk Chinese shirts were deemed “research or work-related materials,” according to Masuzoe. The shirts alone cost ¥35,000. The lawyers accepted his explanation that he needed a new silk shirt because the old one was dirty.

However, among the materials were books and comics apparently bought for family members that had nothing to do with Masuzoe’s official duties.

But despite reports showing that the documentation of the governor’s expenses was insufficient and incomplete, the lawyers, who accompanied him to a June 6 news conference and were paid by Masuzoe, said there was no illegality in the way the money was handled.

How has Masuzoe been countering the allegations?

Masuzoe initially refused to take responsibility for handling his expenses, claiming that reservations were made by his assistants and that some “bookings may have been mistakenly made” by his former accountant.

Amid the growing criticism, he admitted to diverting ¥455,000 to pay for hotel stays and restaurant dinners before assuming his current post in 2014. He said he would correct related claims and return the money.

At the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly’s inaugural 2016 session on June 1, he said he would also refrain from traveling first class and staying in expensive hotel suites when on overseas business trips.

Following the scandal, he said he would donate the amount of expenses deemed inappropriate to charity and give some of the artworks to museums or other facilities. He also said he would consider selling his villa.

Eventually, due to growing pressure from Tokyo assembly members, he offered to halve his salary to take responsibility for the trouble caused by his actions.

Will Masuzoe retain his position?

According to a recent Mainichi Shimbun poll, many in the public are dissatisfied with Masuzoe’s explanation and wondered why loopholes in the Public Funds Control Law could be so easily exploited. Some 77 percent said he should resign.

On Monday, Masuzoe attended one of two 6.5-hour-long General Affairs Committee sessions, which some lawmakers called his “last chance” to defend himself.

According to the Liberal Democratic Party’s Hakubun Shimomura, a special adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Masuzoe’s fate depends on whether he “takes the opportunity … and answers sincerely” to all questions posed to him.

He said the party might support the no-confidence motion, to be submitted to the assembly Tuesday. If adopted, Masuzoe could be forced to resign.

For the motion to pass, two-thirds of the assembly must be present and more than 75 percent of votes in favor are needed.

If passed, the governor will be forced to dissolve his office within 10 days, which will require him to regain his position through re-election. The vote is scheduled for Wednesday.