Two key members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet have admitted to filling out blank receipts as part of their expense claims, raising questions about their ethics and the efficacy of a political funds control law.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told an Upper House budget committee session on Thursday that they had for the past few years had office staff fill out the blank receipts they received after attending fellow Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers’ fundraising parties and paying party fees.

According to Akira Koike, a Japanese Communist Party lawmaker who grilled the pair during the session, the expenses declared on such receipts between 2012 and 2014 amounted to ¥18.75 million and ¥5.2 million for Suga and Inada, respectively.

But both Suga and Inada denied wrongdoing, saying the amounts claimed were accurate and the practice did not breach the political funds control law.

The view was echoed by Sanae Takaichi, internal affairs minister in charge of the law, who insisted their actions were acceptable so long as they were “entrusted” by party organizers with the blank receipts.

Takaichi also added that the funds control law said nothing about the manner in which such receipts should be issued.

The expenses, which are reported yearly, are not reimbursed to the lawmakers.

Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University and an expert on political funding, agreed Suga and Inada could not be held criminally liable due to “loopholes” in the law.

Article 11 of the statute says contributors to political fundraising events are required to collect receipts with the nature and amount — plus other details such as the date — spelled out.

However, it also says this is not the case “if circumstances make collection of these receipts difficult.”

Loopholes like this call into question the efficacy of the law, Iwai said.

Nevertheless, Iwai described the two lawmakers’ actions as “unforgivable” from an ethical point of view, saying it ran contrary to the fundamental principle of the law, which is to ensure “accurate reporting” of political expenses.

“How can blank receipts possibly guarantee their claims are genuine?” Iwai said.

Iwai also said that the lapses committed by Suga and Inada pointed to a corrupt culture long tolerated in Nagatacho — Japan’s epicenter of politics — where politicians prize courtesy to others at the expense of ethics.

“Politicians often bring their donation in what is called noshibukuro,” or a special Japanese envelope used for celebratory occasions, he said.

“And it’s often considered rude to open the envelope in front of the person who brought it to confirm the amount,” he added. “But you have to do it, however ‘rude’ it might be. Accuracy is what matters most.”

Indeed, at the Diet session Thursday, Suga, Inada and Takaichi all argued that having receptionists open every single envelope would be cumbersome, possibly causing “a significant disruption to the party’s proceedings.”

But their logic didn’t sit well with Koike, who blasted their handling of receipts as extremely “sloppy” and “preposterous.”

“I’m sure the public will come to conclude that you are very loose with your use of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.