Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2024.03.29

What is being missed about the funding scandal

The current quagmire is caused by public distrust of the LDP

The Japan Times on Mar 18, 2024

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party appears to be facing its biggest crisis since its inception in 1955.

Amid a series of so-called politics and money scandals, many foreign ambassadors based in Tokyo are probably watching with bated breath, literally, to see which direction Japan's domestic politics will take, making the most of their respective sources and analytical skills. However, excellencies, you must be very careful.

Based on my experience as a diplomat in Washington, Beijing, Baghdad and other capitals, there is always a bias in the information that reaches foreign missions. The sources may be diverse, ranging from sitting government officials, political reporters at home and abroad, politicians including ruling and opposition party leaders, and political commentators and consultants nestled in the periphery. However, there is no guarantee that any of the information they relay to the embassies is correct.

For example, ruling party officials in office tend to convey positive information, while opposition party members, pundits and consultants often intentionally release negative information to advance their ambitions and for self-promotion.

One of the most important sources of information is the media. Political reporters from Japan's major news media have been unusually active recently. It seems as if they have begun expressing their resentment for the humiliations suffered over the past decade under former Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga.

Some political reporters, pundits and academics have written that "the LDP's organization and governance have never collapsed as much as they have now"; "LDP supporters are rapidly turning away from the LDP"; “it is a wonder that the nation of Japan has not collapsed yet.” Indeed, the crisis facing the LDP is by no means small. I, for one, do not wish to repeat the situation of a decade ago, when Japan's internal politics was in disarray and its governance began to drift.

Naturally, the ruling party’s sense of crisis is extraordinary, as can be gleaned from statements in its March 5 campaign policy draft:

  • The LDP as a whole is under intense public scrutiny and strong suspicion due to the opaque and inappropriate accounting practices of the policy groups.
  • We sincerely regret the series of events that have occurred and deeply apologize to the public.
  • We are determined to be reborn as a completely new entity, and we will make a deconstructive restart and proceed with efforts to restore confidence in the LDP.
  • The policy groups will completely break away from "money" and "personnel," thereby breaking away from the "factions" of the past and promoting operational reforms, such as strengthening compliance by revising the party rules, party disciplinary code and governance code.

However, I believe that the essence of the problem is a little different. There are people, not only in the political arena but also in the business world, who, like myself, view this political situation rationally.

The current situation is caused by the public's distrust of the LDP, but it is equally problematic that the Diet's Budget Committee and other committees are now discussing only the "politics and money" issues, which is somewhat out of line, and not enough discussion is being had on other important issues.

Are they all slush funds?

A slush fund is an illegal, undisclosed fund. Certainly, the fact that there was opaque and improper accounting in this case should be vigorously investigated. However, misreporting of political funds is not always tantamount to funds to illegally spending them.

No country in the world has full transparency when it comes all political funds. This is not to say that the situation is acceptable, but the opposition parties in Japan must know that there is no perfect solution in pursuing 100% transparency.

Factions or policy groups?

In the LDP's draft campaign policy, the term "policy group" is used instead of "faction." How in the world, however, will the several hundred LDP parliamentarians without factions decide what to do as a group?

This would only be possible under a dictatorship with a single decision-maker, such as in China or Russia. If factions were to be eliminated, the governance of the LDP, structured as a coalition of conservative mini-parties, would truly collapse.

Has governance collapsed?

With factions' dissolution, there is now only one power center in the LDP, even if temporarily: The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, and party secretary-general, Toshimitsu Motegi. In this sense, the LDP's organization has been centralized. The problem is that a new governance process has not yet been established under that novel power structure.

It is true that the current decision-making system is clearly not functioning, but the essence of the problem is not that of a personal feud between politicians.

Can the opposition govern?

What is most worrisome is the state of Japan's opposition parties. If they were to cooperate in elections and narrow down the number of opposition candidates to one in each district, the LDP would probably suffer a crushing defeat if things continued as they are now.

However, as long as the Communist Party exists, the current opposition parties are not monolithic but, rather, chronically divided. Even if there were to be a general election, a change of government would be a pipe dream. The biggest problem is the absence of politicians who can break through this sense of stagnation.

Unfortunately, however, in democracies, people cannot elect politicians who are better than themselves. If a general election is not held by the summer, the stagnation and drift in Japan's domestic politics will continue for some time.

Eventually, however, people will wake up from their current exuberance in punishing the LDP and come to terms with reality. This vicious cycle has repeated itself several times already. When will the Japanese voters overcome this vice? Japan does not have much time left in the 2020s.