Japan Is Mired in Petty Scandal

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Illustration by Oliver Jeffers

Petty scandal is so common in rich nations that most politicians survive it largely undamaged. Bill Clinton overcame real-estate and sex controversies to finish his administration with a 66 percent approval rating. France's Nicolas Sarkozy was falsely accused in a forgery scheme known as the Clearstream Affair, and began his term with an ugly divorce, but he and France soldier on. Italy is so thoroughly comatose in the face of dubious dealings that the multiple financial and sex scandals around Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have barely affected his approval rating.

Japan is the opposite. In Tokyo, scandal seems to have a way of metastasizing in ways that kill off politicians. A mere eight months ago, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and the Democratic Party of Japan swept into office promising historic reform of a system that has produced one of the world's worst deficits and a stagnant economy. But in what should have been his honeymoon period, he was embroiled in a political funding scandal, reportedly involving $12 million; his approval rating is now at 24 percent, down 50 points since he took office. With upper-house elections due in July, there's talk of who Hatoyama's replacement will be before he has even begun to address the existential crisis he was elected to resolve.

Hatoyama's decline is reviving an old question about Japanese politics: why does the world's second-largest economy produce such lackluster leaders? The usual answers tend to dwell on the decades-long rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had a tradition of producing leaders who inherited seats in Parliament from their fathers or rose on the strength of crony ties. Hatoyama suggests the answer runs deeper. He was elected to take down the LDP, yet he is succumbing to what may be the most overlooked cause of Tokyo's growing leadership vacuum: the nation's pathological obsession with controversy over real policy. Japanese society, famous for quickly adopting the latest gizmos and flitting from fad to fad, is just as quick to seize on the latest petty political scandal.

The string of fatal scandals goes back to the 1970s, when Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was ousted due to shady political contributions, in the first case of what Japanese came to call seiji to kane, or the politics-and-money problem. It was and is a real concern: during the '70s the LDP had already developed an incestuous relationship with the construction industry and farmers, as well as the agencies that regulated those industries. But while many industrial societies developed similarly corrupt "iron triangles," in which parties collude with favored businesses and bureaucracies, Japan was the only one in which any whiff of scandal became a career-ending offense.

In many cases, potentially strong leaders were taken down by relatively weak charges. In 1989, bribery allegations for which he was never prosecuted forced the resignation of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who had laid out a vision of Japan as a European-style welfare state, which might have helped prepare Japan for its aging society. In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Japanese market bubble, and at a time when America was busy discussing the architecture of a post–Cold War world, Japan was busy grilling LDP heavyweight Shin Kanemaru on charges that he took $5 million in illegal donations and evaded taxes. Kanemaru's big idea—introducing a two-party system to shake up Japanese politics—went nowhere. "Not a single politician talked about nuclear nonproliferation or visited the former Soviet bloc as many American lawmakers have done," says Yoshitsugu Tanaka, a veteran political journalist (who is unrelated to the former prime minister). Focused on money politics, Tokyo was slow to adjust to the new post–Cold War world order, and the political instability from a weakened LDP contributed to Japan's lost decade.

Lately, since Junichiro Koizumi's relatively long and successful term ended in 2006, the number of scandal-induced resignations has picked up at an almost frightening pace, with three prime ministers losing their posts in the last four years. Things started to unravel for Koizumi's successor, Shinzo Abe, when Parliament started grilling his agriculture minister for expensing a few tens of thousands of dollars in office water bills; hit a comic-opera high when opposition lawmakers raided his office in a publicity stunt to see if he had the expensive water purifiers he had insisted caused the high bills; and touched bottom when the minister hanged himself amid a string of other allegations. In Japan, both the accusers and the accused tend to wildly overreact.

Abe was never implicated, but the controversies stalled his grand initiatives, such as crafting a profitable relationship with the world's rising economic giant, China. To this day, Japan has yet to figure out a way to maximize its position as China's close and richest neighbor. As Abe's popularity continued to plummet, the LDP lost control of the upper house in 2007, making it impossible for Abe's successor, Yasuo Fukuda, to move ahead with plans that included fixing the nation's social--security system. He threw in the towel after just a year in office, and in the absence of financial scandal, his successor, Taro Aso, became almost instantly the target of petty personal attack: drinking at expensive bars, misreading kanji characters, hiring a finance minister who appeared drunk at a G7 summit news conference. The media pounced on Aso's every slip to discredit the prime minister as an aloof blockhead.

At the time, the global financial crisis was in full swing, but Japan was too distracted by its serial scandals to rally behind Aso's efforts to revive the economy, which included a -stimulus package that is credited for the economy's current modest growth. His disgraced finance minister pledged $100 billion in loans to the International Monetary Fund in response to the crisis, which IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn praised as "the largest loan ever made in the history of humanity." But Japan gave the administration little credit, and the prime minister and his party suffered an ignominious defeat in the election that ended the LDP's long reign.

The fall of the LDP was probably long overdue. Almost everyone inside and outside Japan seemed to agree on that point. But now that Hatoyama and the DPJ seem poised for a similar fate, one has to wonder if the aggressive purging of scandalous behavior has gone too far. Hatoyama's popularity began to founder last fall, when prosecutors, the media, and the opposition dredged up charges that his campaign had reported political contributions under the names of dead people, and that Hatoyama had evaded taxes on what some reports say was $12 million in cash he received from his mother, an industrial heiress, between 2002 and 2009. It didn't help that Ichiro Ozawa, the secretary-general of the DPJ, was simultaneously accused of receiving illegal political contributions. While both Hatoyama and Ozawa deny wrongdoing, it does appear they have some explaining to do. What's remarkable, though, is that investigations focused on these few millions have become the whole story in Japan, while the nation's multibillion-dollar problems are virtually off the radar. Hatoyama has lost his clout to deal with the hot-button issue of renegotiating the relocation of a U.S. air base in Okinawa, and he is now too distracted to deliver on campaign promises such as transferring power from the bureaucracy to politicians.

The obsession with clean politics will strike outsiders as an extension of the attention to cleanliness for which Japan is famous. It's rooted, in part, in a view that political donations are inherently dirty because they suggest special treatment to the privileged. This attitude hardened as economic disparities emerged in the 1970s, says Kazuhisa Kawakami, a politics professor at Meiji Gakuin University. Over time, voters became increasingly disenchanted by the spectacle of politicians buying votes and doling out rewards to their own districts.

In theory, this focus on a cleaner, more transparent government should work better at serving the electorate. But in Japan, scandal is now the main event. Even after prosecutors decided not to indict him, on grounds of insufficient evidence, and an inquest panel cleared Hatoyama from facing prosecution in late April, the opposition continued to slam him as "a liar" for failing to follow through on his promise to disclose the details of his political funds. In early May, Tokyo papers were still running headlines saying Hatoyama was remaining silent about how he used the money he got from his mother, and that prosecutors were demanding answers from Ozawa. According to a March poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, 74 percent of voters say Ozawa should resign. Despite the serious economic and foreign policy issues Japan now faces, more than half say they will base their votes in the upcoming elections on the issue of money and politics.

The law reflects this same set of misplaced priorities. Over the last three decades, countless revisions have imposed increasingly stringent and complex limits on political funds. Today the rules are so complicated, an aggressive prosecutor can almost always find ways to charge a politician with an offense. "It's like the speed limit or taxes," says Tanaka, the political journalist. "It wouldn't be surprising if most of the members in Parliament get caught; it's applied so arbitrarily." But no Japanese politician seems to understand the problem. Indeed, former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe, who recently defected from the LDP to form a new party, is vowing to eliminate money from politics by banning corporate donations. The goal is not only unrealistic—politicians need money to operate in a democracy—but will result in more fundamentally decent politicians getting busted for minor infractions of finicky rules.

Another reason for Japan's scandalmania is historic. During the decades of unbroken LDP rule, the opposition was weak and fractured, and its only regular access to a nationwide audience was in the live broadcast of parliamentary debates, in which only the first days of key deliberations are televised. Desperate to dent the LDP's impregnable hold on power, the opposition came to use this time almost exclusively to berate the LDP over sensationalized scandals, creating a habit that has distorted the national conversation ever since. Today, once the stone-faced men in black from the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office march in to raid the offices of a politician, the policy debate in Tokyo comes to a grinding halt as the Parliament, the media, and the public focus on disgracing the embattled politician.

The Tokyo press corps thus have become accustomed to covering political infighting rather than policy, often blindly trusting the information dealt out by prosecutors. Lately the press has been mocking Hatoyama as a "mama's boy" for receiving millions from his mother, and the opposition dedicated most of its televised parliamentary question time to grilling Hatoyama about his money problem. The media's success at generating ratings by drumming politicians out of office has created an incentive to keep moving, sharklike, on to the next meal. Today there is an unspoken expectation that the next leader will be driven out, in a deep bow of resignation.

Scandalmania is now depriving Japan of the leadership stability it needs to save itself. And not only at the prime-ministerial level. Former LDP lawmaker Muneo Suzuki dedicated his career to improving ties with Russia, a relationship that could help resource-deprived Japan, as well as to triangulate a counterstrategy to China's rise. Suzuki was making progress to resolve territorial disputes over the Kuril Islands, the main stumbling block with Russia, when he was driven out of Parliament in 2003 after a series of bribery scandals. He is back in Parliament as an independent, but without the clout he once had. His plight is a metaphor for Japan's: still a player, but so damaged by self-inflicted wounds that its global influence is waning fast. It's time for Japan to reconsider whether purging every case of seiji to kane is really worth the price.

Japan Is Mired in Petty Scandal | World