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The misappropriation of millions of yen in political funds by Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe for private purposes has been declared “inappropriate but not illegal” because the Political Funds Control Law essentially sets no criteria of activities on which political funds — that may derive from donations or taxpayer-funded government subsidy to political parties — can legitimately be spent. Whether the governor survives the intensifying onslaught of public criticism or resigns, the questionable use of political funds — an all-too-common problem — will continue as long as the loophole remains open.

Masuzoe has been under intense heat for his lavish spending on the official trips that he has made as governor since 2014; for repeatedly using his official vehicle to take weekend trips to his private second home, and for a large amount of questionable “political expenses” that funded what appear to be private activities — ranging from wining and dining to hotel stays during family vacations, and from buying comic and mystery books to purchasing works of art through internet auctions.

The lawyers that the governor commissioned to probe his questionable use of political funds concluded this week that at least ¥4.4 million had been misappropriated for private purposes. They called the acts “inappropriate” but “not illegal” because the law governing political funds has no provision that defines the “political activities” whose expenses can be covered. In fact, some of the other expenses that the lawyers determined were “appropriate” included purchases that common sense would hardly deem necessary for political activities — such as a pair of Chinese silk garments for ¥35,000 during his trip to Shanghai in 2011 while he was an Upper House member (even though the lawyers said they found the governor’s explanation convincing that his calligraphy is better when he wears Chinese garments, and that his calligraphy hobby helps his political activities).

Masuzoe may have thought the probe of his conduct, which he dubbed a “third party” investigation, would deflect some of the criticism leveled against him, but it only appears to have fueled additional calls for his resignation, which won’t go away despite his apologies for “inappropriate” spending. But while Masuzoe is now being singled out because of the sheer volume of questionable spending, the improper use of tax-free political funds has long been a problem among lawmakers and it has not been systematically addressed.

The lack of a definition for the activities on which political funds can be spent is one of the many loopholes in the Political Funds Control Law, which requires political parties and other political groups, such as individual politicians’ fund bodies, to report their revenue and expenses to keep the flow of political funds transparent.

Public attention tends to focus on the loopholes for restrictions on the revenue side — such as the ban on donations by businesses and other organizations to individual lawmakers being routinely circumvented by routing the money to them through their political parties. But while these bodies are required to produce receipts on each expense item above a certain amount, the law sets effectively no restrictions on how the political funds should be used (although false reporting of expenses and failure to report are punishable).

Lawmakers in both the ruling and opposition parties have been accused of improper use of their political funds, but none have been charged over inappropriate expenses. In 2007, during Shinzo Abe’s first stint as prime minister, his farm minister, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, killed himself after he came under fire over revelations that his fund management body had claimed a total of ¥170 million as office and utility expenses in the five years to 2005, even though it was located inside the Diet members’ office complex, which does not charge rent or utility fees. In 2006, Genichiro Sata quit as minister in charge of administrative reforms after it surfaced that he listed ¥78 million in office expenses in his organization’s funds report even though there was no actual office. More recent examples include the case of Democratic Party member Kusuo Oshima, who in March removed an entry of about ¥1 million in political expenses in his organization’s funds report after it was found that his son had used the money for wining and dining.

As highlighted in Masuzoe’s case, the current system effectively allows politicians to justify any expenses as long as they insist that they are necessary for their political activities. The lax restrictions on the use of political funds under the law is rationalized as guaranteeing freedom of political activity. But if that allows politicians to abuse the system and use their political funds for private purposes, the system needs to be reviewed. The problem will not be resolved simply by pushing the embattled governor to resign.

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