National | YEN FOR LIVING

Is a lack of money behind Japan's drought of local political candidates?

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

Contributing Writers

In an Asahi Shimbun editorial published March 30, a week before nationwide elections were held for prefectural and municipal assemblies on April 7, the newspaper fretted about the state of local politics.

Usually in such cases, it’s voter apathy the media laments, but in this case the problem was a lack of candidates.

The Asahi said that some seats in 40 percent of the electoral districts for prefectural assemblies nationwide had already been decided because there was no one contesting them. For instance, if there were 15 seats up for grabs in a district and only 15 people were running, then there would be no reason to have an election.

Throughout Japan, according to the Asahi, a total of 612 candidates were “guaranteed” the prefectural assembly seats they were running for, representing about 27 percent of all the seats available — the highest portion ever.

A common theory about the lack of involvement in local politics, which is not necessarily limited to Japan, is that it doesn’t pay, so we looked into our own bailiwick, Chiba Prefecture, to see if that’s the case.

The prefectural assembly has 94 seats, and 130 candidates announced they were running. Tokyo Shimbun reported that 25 seats were already decided ahead of the election, and according to the website Kyuryo Bank, which compiles incomes of various jobs, the yearly salary for a member of the Chiba Prefectural Assembly is ¥10.56 million.

That sounds pretty good, but maybe the prefectural level is punching too high. What about municipal pay? The website Gadget Tsushin reported in 2015, when the last local elections were held, that a member of the Chiba City Assembly made ¥730,000 a month, with the chairman of the assembly pulling in ¥880,000. In contrast, a municipal civil servant in Chiba on average earned ¥450,000. It was less in Urayasu in the north of the prefecture: ¥520,000 for an assembly person versus ¥470,000 for a bureaucrat.

That’s not bad, either, especially given the fact that the average number of days nationwide city assemblies are in session is 84.8 days a year, according to former Ichikawa city assembly member Ryohei Takahashi. Of course, Takahashi is only talking about the days when lawmakers have to show up for assembly sessions. They are expected to carry out research into local issues and meet with constituents the rest of the time, so counting that work would make their daily wage less. But that’s only if you don’t count something called seikatsuhi, or “political activity expenses.”

There are many news stories about lawmakers abusing their expense accounts.

In principle, these funds are to be used for research materials, making reports about political activities, purchasing supplies and renting office space.

However, in 2014 there were two local expense-related scandals that became national news.

In the more sensational case, Hyogo Prefectural Assemblyman Ryutaro Nonomura was caught pocketing ¥9.13 million that he claimed for nonexistent travel and then apologized with a wailing rant on TV that became a viral meme. Then, members of various parties in the Toyama Municipal Assembly admitted to forging receipts for expenses, resulting in several lawmakers resigning.

These two scandals weren’t isolated incidents.

They are considered more or less the tip of the iceberg, and some local governments provide transparency about expense accounts in order to keep politicians honest.

Many prefectures and municipalities require detailed expense reports and the submission of receipts, but if a constituent wants to check these documents they may have to go to the relevant office in person. In an Asahi Shimbun article about seikatsuhi published April 2, Zenkoku Shimin Onbuzuman Renraku Kaigi, a nationwide association of civil ombudsman, looked at the policies of all 47 prefectures and 74 major cities. Only 14 prefectures and 35 of those cities post receipts on their websites.

Some citizens keep an eye on expenses. A group of residents of Tokyo’s Suginami Ward sued the ward mayor, demanding that the ward order an assembly member to return almost ¥11 million in expenses that had been spent on campaign activities. On March 22, the Tokyo District Court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor but only ordered the defendants to pay back about ¥2.7 million.

In 2015, an advisory panel to Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward suggested reducing assembly members’ monthly seikatsuhi from ¥150,000 to ¥50,000, while at the same time increasing salaries by ¥102,000. Though the salary boost would cancel out the loss in seikatsuhi, members would have to dip into their salaries to pay for any costs that exceeded ¥50,000 a month.

The panel, which was made up of university professors and other experts, said the problem was that it was difficult to determine, even with receipts attached, to what extent assembly members’ expenses contributed to the political situation in the ward, so they felt it was better to reduce the amount granted.

When the members of the Chiyoda assembly objected to the panel’s recommendation, claiming it would lack transparency, the ward mayor “postponed” any revision to the seikatsuhi system. It should be pointed out, though, that the monthly salary for Chiyoda assembly members was ¥616,000, the second highest of all Tokyo wards.

In fact, Tokyo ward expense accounts are notoriously generous.

On average, ward assembly members can spend up to ¥1.99 million a year as seikatsuhi, while the amount for cities in outer Tokyo average about ¥320,000 a year, according to the Asahi. But members of Higashikurume’s assembly in western Tokyo receive only ¥7,625 a month against a monthly salary of ¥456,000. According to Asahi Shimbun, all 23 wards and 26 cities in Tokyo offer seikatsuhi, as do 90 percent of all municipal assemblies in Japan.

Assembly pay and political activity expenses tend to be higher in municipalities with bigger populations, but Chiyoda only has 60,000 residents, compared to Setagaya Ward, whose assembly members make ¥618,000 a month, with a population of 900,000. The main reason for high salaries and expenses is higher living costs, since assembly members have to live in their constituency, but it also has to do with the higher tax base. There’s simply more money to go around.

There are exceptions. Osaka is one of the richest prefectures, but its assembly members receive the lowest pay in the country, according to Kyuryo Bank, mainly owing to former Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto, who made a point of keeping a lid on salaries in order to reign in costs.

What’s more, local assembly members get generous bonuses, and they used to receive a pension when they retired.

In order to qualify, they had to serve on an assembly for at least 12 years, and contribute part of their salary to the pension fund — 13 percent for prefectures, 16 percent for municipalities. The national government revoked the pension system in 2011, but last year some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said they would try to revive the system in order to boost the number of candidates for local office, but the implication of a pension is that the people who receive them are being compensated for a career, and there are many politicians who make their living as elected officials at the local level.

Meanwhile, the Asahi Shimbun reported that many members of Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward assembly who belong to the LDP, the largest group, have taken their turn as chairman, a position that earns 50 percent more than a regular assembly seat.

That’s only fair for a group of people who spend all their lives in the same office, and, in a sense, that’s probably why there isn’t always a candidate contesting these seats. It’s difficult to remove someone who seems to be a permanent fixture.

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan.