National / Politics

Loose funds law offers no guarantee Masuzoe's successor won't also be spendthrift

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

As rumors make headlines over who will replace disgraced Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe, many in the capital wonder if his successor will also be a lavish spender of taxpayer money.

The Political Funds Control Law contains no strict criteria for judging what kinds of activities politicians can legitimately spend money on. Lawmakers say the law was written that way to guarantee freedom of activity.

The law, however, allows lawmakers to circumvent the ban on donations from businesses and other groups to individual lawmakers by receiving the money through their political parties. A significant portion of the political funds used by lawmakers comes from the roughly ¥30 billion in annual subsidies the government provides to their parties. Also, the law does not specify how to control the way such funds are used.

In spite of these gaps, there are essentially no political moves under way at the national or municipal levels to revise the law, even after the huge commotion Masuzoe caused with his spending habits before he became governor.

But experts insist the law should be revised to narrow the scope for using political funds to prevent public money from being abused for private purposes.

“There are no restrictions on the use of political funds,” said Kensaku Iuchi, a a public notary and visiting law professor at Chuo University in Tokyo.

The former prosecutor said that the regulations should be revised so the city can verify whether its funds are being properly used for work-related activities.

“What needs to be changed as well is for lower-ranking staff to pay more attention to this issue,” he said.

During Masuzoe’s two terms as an Upper House lawmaker from 2001 to 2013, including a two-year stint as health minister, he spent political funds on everything from wining and dining and family trips to comic books, mystery novels and artwork bids at auctions.

But a third-party panel concluded those outlays were not technically illegal because Masuzoe insisted they were necessary for his “political activities.”

After he was elected Tokyo governor in February 2014, he lavishly spent ¥247.19 million on nine official trips abroad.

For his trip to London last year, the airfare for Masuzoe and his staff came to ¥2.66 million, and his hotel suite cost about ¥200,000 per night. When then-London Mayor Boris Johnson came to Japan last October, he spent ¥660,000 on the flight and stayed at a ¥35,000-per-night hotel, according to Tokyo Assemblyman Shun Otokita, a vocal Masuzoe critic.

Otokita, 33, said that ensuring transparency in the use of political funds would prevent politicians from engaging in lavish or improper spending.

“Why not disclose all the expenses on the internet on a regular basis, allowing voters to verify how the funds are used in real time,” rather than revising a law designed to give politicians liberty in their political activities, he suggested.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly failed to curb Gov. Masuzoe’s lavish spending in part because of his cozy ties with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Otokita said.

Instead of giving the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly a chance to veto Masuzoe’s costly proposals, the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition in the Diet would simply raise them with metro bureaucrats behind closed doors before pitching them to the assembly, which merely rubber-stamped them, Otokita said.

“As far as I know, no proposal has been voted down or revised over the past two or three decades,” he said of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly’s largesse.

An officer in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly’s proceedings section told The Japan Times that no spending proposal has ever been turned down, and that only projects exceeding ¥900 million need the assembly’s approval.

In other prefectures, where budgets are much smaller, governors usually don’t have the luxury of traveling first-class or staying in hotel suites. Others simply use common sense.

Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, for example, is allowed to travel first-class but always uses business class, and prefers to stay at hotels where other prefectural officials stay, an official who requested that his name be withheld told The Japan Times.

In Fukuoka, the governor has waived his right to first-class flights, which is guaranteed by law, and put priority on reducing other travel-related expenses, including accommodations, a Fukuoka bureaucrat who requested anonymity said.

Saitama Gov. Kiyoshi Ueda introduced an ordinance prohibiting the use of first-class flights, an officer in the prefecture’s secretariat division said.

“I think the governor is very cautious about spending taxpayer money,” he added.

Coronavirus banner