Friday, November 23, 2007

DPJ Hopes Finance Minister Nukaga Comes Through for Them

Prime Minister wannabe Fukushirō Nukaga is a former Defense Minister (when MOD was still the Self-Defense Agency) and member in good standing of the Japanese defense community. He is now Minister of Finance, a diminished but still powerful portfolio, in the Fukuda Cabinet. He also plays golf, and eats out. All this has brought him – merely allegedly in one case – into the company of Yamada Yōkō and the people embroiled in the MOD scandals. The thinking of the DPJ is that if they can bring this Cabinet member down, they will be able to sink the refueling bill, the Fukuda Cabinet, and the LDP in a snap election forced by an Upper House censure vote.

Mr. Nukaga entered the picture when Takemasa Moriya, the now-disgraced former MOD Administrative Vice-Minister, testified in the Diet under oath that he went to a dinner held for James Auer, a former military intelligence officer, Pentagon official and prominent Japan hand, and that Mr. Nukaga (and the hospitalized ex-MOD Minister Fumio Kyuma) was there as well as Motonobu Miyazaki (CEO of Yamada Yōkō split-off Nihon Mirise), the main character of this saga and now criminal suspect. Mr. Nukaga, Mr. Miyazaki, and, most importantly, Mr. Auer have all denied attending the said dinner*. By his own account, Mr. Nukaga has known Mr. Miyazaki for several years, once received him in his Diet office, and once played golf with him (and paid 20,000 yen out of his own pocket) at a golf club affiliated with Yamada Yōkō.

Between 2002 and 2007, Mr. Nukaga sold 2.2 million yen worth of fund raising party tickets to Yamada Yōkō, all of which he returned after the scandals broke. He has denied receiving any political funds in the form of donations. He also received 200,000 yen as part of the invitation to the wedding of the daughter of the Yamada Yōkō owner – he has not been personally implicated in the scandal – and sent in his stead his wife, who gave the same amount as a wedding gift.

These Yamada Yōkō/Miyazaki related revelations have created considerable embarrassment for Mr. Nukaga. However, all of them, to the extent admitted by Mr. Nukaga, as well as the alleged dinner honoring Mr. Auer, are par for the course for a politician of Mr. Nukaga’s background. It is only with hindsight that they have become a matter of interest for the DPJ and the media. Likewise his links to the Japan-U.S. Center for Peace and Cultural Exchange and its executive director Naoki Akiyama (again, golf). So far, the DPJ has turned up more smoke and mirrors than smoking gun.

More troublesome for the Finance Minister is the latest allegation, this time coming from Nobumasa Ōta, a former JSDA fast-track official. According to Mr. Ōta, in 2003, when he was the head of the Sendai branch of the Defense Facilities Administration Agency, Mr. Nukaga applied pressure through Mr. Moriya to include a Sendai construction company in the list of eligible bidders at the branch. Mr. Ōta’s background lends a measure of instant credibility to his charge. Even if his allegations are true, they would still likely fall short of a criminal indictment** of a sitting Cabinet Minister and defense establishment member, a turn of events that would be as good or better than what I believed to be the minimum necessary for stopping the OEF-MIO refueling resumption bill. However, it will not require a criminal indictment to force Mr. Nukaga’s resignation and discredit the LDP and the Fukuda administration, which, for electoral and internal reasons, is vastly more beneficial to the DPJ than taking down the refueling bill. Influence peddling is something that anyone can understand and rally against.

But what are the chances of Mr. Ōta’s charges sticking? In my view slim, not least because everybody, including the official who allegedly told Mr. Ōta of the pressure through Mr. Moriya, are denying that it ever happened. So, unless Mr. Ōta or the DPJ comes up with independent corroborating information, the matter will remain a case of he hearsays/they say. In which case, Mr. Nukaga and the Fukuda administration will weather this attack – if not without being a little diminished, since there is no way that Mr. Ōta will retract his allegations.***. Still, the issue bears watching, because the DPJ may just have something up its sleeve.

*It is somewhat mystifying to me that the DPJ continues to bark up this particular tree. I see no plausible reason for these people to need to lie about this particular allegation. Is someone leading the DPJ, once again, on a wild goose chase? What does Seji Maehara think?

** You are warned that I’m writing this down without doing the usual fact-checking. Specifically, I’d have to hit the casebooks to be sure that Mr. Nukaga’s alleged action does not constitute an exercise of his authority as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary at the time. There are also statute of limitation considerations that turn on the existence of specific quid pro quo for the alleged action, which in turn entails questions of fact that I can only speculate about.

*** Mr. Ōta does have some substantial downside, including, most importantly in the eyes of the public, the fact that he ran for an Upper House seat in 2004 (but not 2007) as a DPJ candidate. The LDP will play on that and other matters around Mr. Ōta. A smear campaign? The pox-on-all-houses tabloid media will do that for them. But this will definitely not hurt Mr. Ōta’s career as a freewheeling talking head and blogger extraordinaire and indefatigable chatroom operator.

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