Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How Many More Shoes to Drop in Construction Money Scandal?

If there’s one Japanese-language news item to read today on the unfolding construction money scandal, it’s this one. According to the Asahi report, there is a document (or documents) that shows four general contractors (Shimizu Corporation, Obayashi, Taisei Corporation, and Toda Corporation) in addition to Nishimatsu Construction Co. giving money through subcontractors and other means to the “Ozawa side”—the media’s term for the trio of: Ichiro Ozawa’s political finance management organization, the DPJ local chapter for the Iwate Prefecture Fourth District (Ozawa’s electoral district), and the DPJ’s Iwate Prefecture association of local chapters. The source (sources?) claims that the money flowing from the five zenecon to the Ozawa side amount to about 100 million yen annually and that the Public Prosecutors Office is aware of the document(s). All the other media outlets must be scrambling furiously to follow this story. Now if you think this is bad for Ozawa…

Public works are the Ichor of economies and politics, local and national; As such, it was always doubtful that Nishimatsu was the only zenecon that would take a proprietary interest in the financial well-being of the “Ozawa side”, or that the zenekon’s interests would all be focused on the “Ozawa side”. Moreover, as an industry long used to “competing and collaborating (競争と協調)”—over the years, they have provided the stage for a long-running, whack-a-mole saga of collusion scandals—it was always likely that as one led, others would follow; and that this pattern would be repeated to no end. In any case, the PPO got a foot in the door by way of Nishimatsu, got the Nishimatsu people talking, got to look at the Nishimatsu books, and as the result is now able to broaden the scope of their investigation. I expect the PPO to begin looking into the other four zenekons, talking to their people, examining their books, to see what they reveal.

Ladies and gentlemen, the cancer has metastasized. The story is no longer (if it ever was) Nishimatsu, no longer Ozawa, no longer even the DPJ/Ozawa-LDP/Nikai Mexican standoff; it’s the whole shebang.


Janne Morén said...

And so we may see another healthy bump for the party of "None of the above"?

One thing I'm a little confused about: if there's one thing that's actually well known about Japanese politics outside the country, it's the construction company - politician - campaign fund donations angle. I have the subjective impression of thsi being a constant, ongoing, neverending string of revelations over many years.

So what is it that makes this one special? Is it larger or more brazen than usual, or is it mostly a matter of timing, with a crucial, wide-open election looming that makes it such big news?

Jun Okumura said...

Janne: As construction money scandals go, this is actually pretty mild. So far, there have been no accusations of bribery, and I will be very surprised if there are any such indictments. (Ozawa is now banking on that to enable him to keep his place at the top of the DPJ. Incidentally, there are two laws, one essentially mostly to do with the acts of public servants and another dealing exclusively with Diet members and their public-appointment secretaries.) So it’s obviously the timing—that and Ozawa’s name—that is driving the story. But as more and more zenekons and politicians are implicated, a general pall is likely to spread across the political spectrum but particularly on the LDP. I think that we’re already beginning to see the effects in the greater care that both sides are exercising in speaking out against each other while piling on in unison on the hapless bureaucrat who has learned the limits of “off-the-record” protection the hard way. Of course it’s not difficult for the media and the public to continue connecting the dots, and one possible outcome of the increased sizzle is some form of political financing reform that plugs loopholes (don’t hold your breath waiting for that one though) or at least brings greater transparency to corporate contributions.

More effective, though, may be an acceleration of a long-term shift away from zenekon money. There’s less money there as public works budgets, national and local, have shrunk dramatically. All but one of the names I’ve seen being floated in the Nishimatsu case as recipients (LDP— Koji Omi (76), Tokio Kano (74),Yoshiro Mori (71), and Toshihiro Nikai (70), though Shunichi Yamaguchi (59); DPJ—Ichiro Ozawa (66), and Kenji Yamaoka(65)) are in their sixties and seventies. There is some other anecdotal evidence that younger politicians are less reliant on those sources, Mix that in with two now evenly matched contestants vying for the media and the electorate’s favor and, though it may be wishful thinking on my part, this could be the event that finally pushes the generational shift whose immediate prospects up till now have appeared pretty bleak beyond the tipping point.

In the meantime, yes, I’m putting a “buy” recommendation on “none of the above”.