Tokyo Notes

Will Donations Derail Maehara?

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Tokyo Notes

Will Donations Derail Maehara?

Will accounting oversights mean Japan loses the very capable Seiji Maehara as foreign minister.

He’s young, whip-smart, and an avid train spotter. He’s also been touted as a potential future prime minister. Yet some accounting oversights could, possibly, have derailed any aspirations to higher office held by Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.

On Thursday, Maehara apologized for a blooper by one of his staff in misreporting the name of a donor, and for the fact that his political organization also received donations from firms linked to a corporate manager charged with tax evasion. He said he was prepared to explain the oversight in parliament and return the money, but added he won’t resign over the matter.

Yet the following day, he found himself bowing once more in apology for a potentially more serious indiscretion involving the receipt of donations from a long-term foreign resident (illegal under a political funding law). The donor was a 72-year-old South Korean woman who runs a yakiniku barbecue restaurant in Kyoto whom Maehara had known since his school days. The woman had given 200,000 yen to Maehara’s political organization over four years, according to the body’s funding report. 

The woman explained her side of the story to the Asahi Shimbun: ‘Maehara’s from a poor family and he had to struggle to become a Diet member, so I wanted to support him. I didn’t know that zainichi (Korean residents of Japan) couldn’t give donations and I’ve caused him trouble. Perhaps he thought I’d obtained Japanese nationality?’

Maehara made the admission in parliament in response to a question by an opposition Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker. The LDP must have really dug deep to find some mud to sling at Maehara, who prides himself on his cleaner-than-thou image. He’s also one of the biggest critics of Ichiro Ozawa, a former Democratic Party of Japan leader facing trial over corruption charges.

Maehara said he would decide on his course of action after scrutinizing the facts.

Maehara would have known the law forbids political donations from foreigners, so if he knew the restaurateur’s nationality, and that she was donating to his political body, then he surely has no choice but to step down. If, however, he can demonstrate he was unaware of the donation, and that his staff were inattentive to its source, he should stay on – in a rational world.

But politics in Japan aren't endowed with such reason. A bloodthirsty LDP is sharpening its knives and the conservative media will likely quite happily hop on the bandwagon of condemnation. Even if he has done nothing wrong, it could well be the end of the line for Maehara as the nation’s top diplomat (and all over such a relatively trivial sum).

This would be a shame given his popularity with the public (he’s often named in polls as the person most suitable for the premiership). He has also shown backbone in standing up to Moscow over a territorial spat, and is aggressively batting for much-needed agricultural reforms and trade liberalization.

His loss would be a major blow to a government that seems to be veering off track.