Friday, February 16, 2024

Kishida Administration Grilled by Opposition Parties

CCS Hayashi
And it is inconclusive

By Takuya Nishimura
, Senior Fellow, Former Editorial Writer for The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
You can find his blog, J Update here.
February 10, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point

In the Japanese Diet, the Budget Committees of both Houses are where the hottest political issues are discussed between lawmakers and government officials. Last week, starting on February 5, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was grilled by members of the Lower House Budget Committee over his handling of political reform within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and his appointment of cabinet ministers connected to the controversial Unification Church. Kishida’s strategy is to give the opposition parties vague and inconclusive answers.

The Budget Committee hearings are the highlight of the Diet session every year and are ordinarily scheduled a week after the Q&A in the plenary session after the Prime Minister’s annual policy speech. While the Q&A in the plenary session is in the form of prepared questions and answers, a Budget Committee hearing is an unscripted debate within the time allocated to every party. The hearing is nominally about the budget bill submitted to the Diet, but the opposition parties ask about everything, because the budget bill deals with everything.

In the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives (Lower House), the opposition parties demanded to know the purpose of contributions by the LDP to its leaders. It was reported that former Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai had received ¥5 billion from that fund over five years. While LDP is continuing to investigate the failures to disclose cash distributions from each LDP faction to its members, the party’s own fund, which covers “policy activities expenses,” has been untouched by the slush fund scandal because this fund is not subject to disclosure requirements.

Kishida asserted a principle of “freedom of political activity” to defend the secrecy of the LDP’s expenses. “Freedom of political activity and people’s right to know should be balanced,” Kishida told the Secretary General for the Constitutional Democratic Party, Katsuya Okada. “Once the fund was disclosed,” Kishida argued, “it reveals business secrets of companies or organizations, and strategic plan of party will be leaked to the rivals in politics, or even to foreign countries.”

It is hard to understand why Kishida so strongly opposes disclosures about the LDP fund. The opposition parties are skeptical about the money, supposing that it must be used for things they cannot explain. It is not strange for people to imagine that the money must have ultimately been handed to local supporters, just as in the bribery cases of Katsuyuki Kawai in Hiroshima or Mito Kakizawa in Tokyo.

The opposition parties even referred to a possibility of tax evasion. Yuichi Goto (CDP) insisted that the leaders who received funds from the LDP may well have evaded income taxes, if they took unused funds and failed to report them on tax returns. A witness from Ministry of Finance testified that the receipt of surplus cash from the LDP may be a taxable event. Kishida reiterated that he would not explain the use of the fund.

Opposition party attacks on Kishida’s leadership have not been limited to reforms in response to the slush fund scandal and have spread to his appointments of ministers of his administration. Asahi Shimbun reported that the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Masahito Moriyama, had received the support of the Federation for World Peace (FWP), an organization connected to Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU, better known as the Unification Church), in the 2021 election. In October 2023, Moriyama’s ministry sought a court order to disband the FFWPU.

According to a series of reports by the Asahi, Moriyama accepted support from FWP for his election campaign, including a telephone bank staffed by FWP members, urging voters to vote. The newspaper also reported that Moriyama had signed a policy accord with FWP before his appointment. The accord included an agreement to support legislation to amend the constitution to enhance security as well as legislation to teach family values and to give children a moral education. He was also asked to caution voters against promoting LGBTQ rights and same sex marriage.

Moriyama’s ministry oversees religious corporations. Once entering into a policy accord with the FWP, Moriyama became responsible for implementing these policies even after he became minister. Obviously, the ministry’s neutrality on these policies was compromised.

In the hearing before the Lower House Budget Committee, Moriyama vaguely recalled that he had received some support from FWP. The next day, however, he refused to provide clear answers about the nature of his relationship with the FWP, repeating “I have no memory of it.” Kishida rejecting a request to replace Moriyama, said that Moriyama had terminated his relationship with FWP.

When the fact of a meeting with a person connected to FFWPU in 2019 was revealed last December Kishida said that he did not know who was in the meeting. The memory of Kishida also has a certain ambiguity.

Questions surrounding that meeting involve not only Moriyama but also another minister closer to Kishida. Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshimasa Hayashi, admitted to having a meeting with FWP officials before the 2021 election. In his daily press conference, Hayashi said that he was not sure about who was there in the 2019 meeting and what they talked about. The Harvard grad also has memory issues.

Watching Kishida’s mounting troubles, some LDP leaders have begun to act. Former Minister of Defense and former LDP Secretary General, Shigeru Ishiba, held a meeting with his colleagues, which he maintains as policy study group. The minister in charge of Economic Security, Sanae Takaichi, gave a lecture to a conservative group.

The activities of these quasi-factions in the LDP began only one week after the largest group, the Abe faction, and some other factions announced their dissolution. These are inconvenient facts for Kishida who will base his leadership on ending factions and promoting political reform in the LDP when he seeks reelection as LDP president this fall. More questions will be coming from the Upper House Budget Committee in its hearing with the Prime Minister in March.

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