National / Politics

Japan's only female minister, Satsuki Katayama, hit by allegation she was paid to influence tax agency

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Just two weeks into her appointment, the only female minister in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new Cabinet found herself in hot water Thursday after a weekly magazine alleged that she was paid to use her bureaucratic influence to get a tax break for a business owner in 2015.

Satsuki Katayama, the minister in charge of regional revitalization and female empowerment, swiftly blasted the report as “factually erroneous” and “inaccurate,” saying she is preparing to sue the Shukan Bunshun magazine for defamation.

The denial by Katayama — a former elite bureaucrat of the Finance Ministry — was in response to an article published the same day by the magazine, which alleged that in 2015 she received ¥1 million from a troubled business owner and approached the National Tax Agency on his behalf to negotiate the preferential tax treatment he was seeking. The Finance Ministry has jurisdiction over the National Tax Agency.

“The article makes it sound as if I had requested the ¥1 million myself and intervened in the process of a tax probe, but I have never influenced tax authorities in the interest of a specific company or received money,” Katayama said during a joint interview with media outlets on Thursday.

The article, she says, risks “significantly undermining my reputation as a politician.”

It was the first major ministerial scandal to emerge since Abe revamped his Cabinet earlier this month, following his successful re-election in September as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Katayama was the only woman who made it into Abe’s 19-member Cabinet, despite the leader’s purported “womenomics” commitment to putting more women in leadership positions.

Even if the allegation is true, her act is unlikely to constitute illegal behavior, falling short of violating a law banning public officials from profiting by exerting influence, said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University and an expert on political funding scandals.

Because the law stipulates that officials need to exert influence stemming from their authority in order for them to be held culpable, the fact Katayama didn’t hold a ministerial or other authoritative position at the time suggests that she lacked direct sway over tax agency officials, he said.

Nonetheless, it could call into question her professional ethics and is “very similar in nature” to an influence-peddling claim that eventually forced former economic revitalization minister Akira Amari to resign in 2016, Iwai said.

At the very least, “opposition parties will try to grill her and question her moral obligations” once the extraordinary Diet session convenes next week, he said.

According to the Shukan Bunshun article, an unnamed business owner looking for a tax break contacted Katayama’s former private secretary in 2015 and, at the secretary’s instruction, transferred ¥1 million to a designated bank account in the hope that Katayama would talk to the tax agency on behalf of his interests. The secretary has been identified as Hiroji Namura.

The article was accompanied by a photo of a document that, under the name of Katayama and Namura, asked the owner to wire the money to the account so they can start “making arrangements” with tax authorities.

Katayama’s office admitted to the magazine that the sum had been sent to the account in question, but sought to dissociate the payment from Katayama by arguing it was paid as a “consulting fee” for Namura. Namura is also a tax accountant, according to the article.

Shukan Bunshun also quotes the business owner as claiming he visited Katayama’s office in September 2015 and lobbied her in person. According to the article, after hearing her visitor’s plea, Katayama gave him assurances: “Sure, I’ll do it then. Leave this up to me, it’s not really much of a big deal.”

“If everything goes well, ¥1 million is a small price for you to pay, right?” she was also quoted as saying.

In Thursday’s interview, Katayama repeatedly denied that she herself had received ¥1 million. But she neither denied nor confirmed that she made the remarks printed in the magazine, saying she was advised by her lawyer to refrain from commenting on specifics before initiating a lawsuit.