National / Politics

Deputy land minister quits after using graft buzzword sontaku to describe his decision to fund project for Abe

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Deputy land minister Ichiro Tsukada resigned Friday, days after using contentious wording to claim he had influenced the allocation of funds for a major highway project he believed was favored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso.

Tsukada made the remark on April 1 during a campaign rally for a candidate, backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, running in the Fukuoka gubernatorial election set to be held Sunday.

The sudden resignation by the senior vice minister at the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry appeared to be a damage-control effort aimed at protecting the LDP’s election campaigns.

At the rally, Tsukada said he used sontaku — the act of surmising what your boss really wants and taking actions to achieve it without receiving any clear instructions or orders from that person — when allocating research funds to the project, which will link Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture with Kitakyushu, in Fukuoka.

Yamaguchi and Fukuoka are the home prefectures of Abe and Aso, respectively.

“I’m quick to understand. I immediately employed sontaku,” Tsukada told the rally in Kitakyushu. His remark was verified in a voice clip uploaded to the news website of broadcaster TV Asahi.

“Of course neither the prime minister nor the deputy prime minister could say things like this. But I use sontaku,” he said.

Facing reporters Friday in Tokyo, however, Tsukada denied that he had ever used his political influence to allocate funds to the highway project. He said he would step down anyway, as his remarks “caused great trouble to everybody.”

“I’m really sorry for making a remark that was not true during a major rally like that,” he said.

Tsukada didn’t clearly explain why he made what he now claims was an erroneous remark. Reporters asked him to explain why many times, but he only said that his comments were “different from facts” because he was “overwhelmed by the atmosphere” of the campaign rally.

Tsukada’s remark drew particular public attention partly because sontaku was a buzzword in the cronyism scandal involving Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen and Abe’s wife, Akie. The scandal has been rocking the Abe administration since 2017.

Abe has denied using his influence to favor Moritomo Gakuen, but it is widely believed the Finance Ministry sold a land plot in Osaka to the school operator at a huge discount because the first lady temporarily served as the honorary principal of an incomplete elementary school that was being built there under the Moritomo Gakuen group.

The sale, conducted by the Finance Ministry officials, was widely described as an example of sontaku at work. Because of that association, Tsukada’s use of the word at this time carried a particularly bad connotation and has caused quite a stir among the public.

Tsukada’s gaffe and resignation are likely to have some adverse affect on LDP campaigning across the country for the unified local elections scheduled this Sunday, including the Fukuoka gubernatorial election.

Tsukada himself was expected to become an LDP candidate for Niigata Prefecture in the Upper House election in summer, which is likely to be a key barometer for public opinion on Abe’s administration.

Tsukada is also a member of an LDP intraparty faction headed by Aso.

“I think the remark was inappropriate,” said Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya during a news conference Friday.

“He probably said that to warm up the rally,” Iwaya said, going on to hint that someone in a vice-ministerial position, overseeing such projects, could have displayed better judgment. Iwaya is also a member of Aso’s faction.

“Reactions to his words were much stronger than expected,” Iwaya added.

“I think he made a decision (to quit) so that he would not cause any more trouble.”