TOKYO–Yoichi Masuzoe’s resignation, effective June 21, over the mismanagement of political and public funds makes it official.
Japan’s capital prefecture is now two for two in governors resigning in disgrace over political financing scandals. Masuzoe begged in vain to be allowed to fly to Brazil in August for the host-to-host Olympics (and Paralympics) handoff from the mayor of Rio de Janeiro for the 2020 Tokyo Games. It would have been pretty ironic and awkward had the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly relented, though, since the Rio mayor appears to be one of the few prominent Brazilian politicians of note whose name has not been linked to the Lavo Jato, or “car wash,” scandal, which is destroying the political fortunes of a former and hopefully future president.
Never one for half measures, those Brazilians—and they also throw great parties. But I digress.
If there is any solace for Masuzoe, it is that he is unlikely to be charged with any form of criminal corruption, according to experts queried by the Japanese media. The relevant laws and regulations are apparently too vague to make his joy rides and family outings the subject of prosecution as long as accounting records have been kept.
His predecessor, who failed to account for a secret 50 million yen donation, was not so lucky. Nor were the criminally indicted predecessors of two other sitting governors. (The predecessor of one other sitting governor also resigned in disgrace, but escaped prosecution when the alleged sexual assault victim declined to press criminal charges. That, incidentally makes it four gubernatorial offices out of 47, which is a pretty high attrition rate for any executive job category that does not include the word “yakuza” in it.) In fact, there’s a case to be made that Masuzoe could have weathered the storm and stayed on, if not to run for a second term, which would have enabled him to preside over the 2020 Games, or at least serve out his current term with dignity had he played his cards right. But that was not to be the case. Let me explain.
Burner of bridges
The undeniably brilliant Masuzoe must be one of the most friendless public figures in Japan ever. No one appears to be coming forward to offer words of support, sympathy, or compassion. Instead, people who know or claim to know him well are eager to come forward to dump on the poor man. That put him at a serious disadvantage when it came to media coverage. Indeed, his entire career, from academia to the LDP to fringe party head to the LDP again, is a tale of promising leads souring along the way, at which point he moves on, having burnt his bridges.
All this meant that Masuzoe had a smaller margin of error for damage control operations — and he messed up big time. He tried to justify and/or obfuscate alleged misdeeds. When that only fanned the flames around him, he sought to buy time and put the issue behind him by having his actions inspected by “third parties.” But the “third parties” turned out to be a couple of lawyers that he had hired, who by law are bound to their client by their fiduciary duties. The report was unsurprisingly a widely ridiculed attempt at whitewash, whose highlights are reported elsewhere in the English media.
But any puncher’s chance of surviving even that misstep was lost because of what mattered most to the LDP: the upcoming House of Councillors (HoC) election on July 10, when half of its 242 seats will be contested in the triennial event. If the LDP had allowed Masuzoe to stay on, the opposition would have wielded it as a sledgehammer over the LDP. Local elections are usually just that, local, despite media attempts to inflate their impact. But Tokyo stories have national reach. Tokyo, moreover, is a “swing” prefecture. Not quite as anti-establishmentarian as Osaka voters but arguably more volatile, with 6 seats directly at stake in the upcoming election, the LDP was not going to take any chances.
The LDP is not out of the Tokyo woods by any means though. The Tokyo election to replace Masuzoe will take place in late July or early August. This means that the run-up to the July 10 HoC election will coincide with the early part of the gubernatorial campaign. A media-friendly candidate with name and face recognition could provide plenty of favorable national and local coverage for every political party that can field one.
A new hope
Many people believe that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the main opposition party has one: Renho Murata, the gravure idol-turned-TV personality-turned politician, who has a cabinet post and senior party executive posts on her resume. She is not without her political warts. But she certainly has credibility, visibility, and, for a Japanese politician, a measure of charisma. Barring a political miracle, the DPJ is not coming back to power over the four-year governor’s term. In the meantime, the Tokyo governor will remain in the public eye because of the 2020 Games and well, because of Tokyo. My guess is that she’ll go for it.
So it’s the DPJ’s turn to serve if Renho stands for election. Can the LDP hit the return key? Stay tuned.
Jun Okumura is currently a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. He is a 30-year veteran of the Japanese civil service. During his career with the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry, he took part in several bilateral and multilateral negotiations, including UNCLOS II and and the Uruguay Round as the lead METI negotiator for trade in services. He headed METI’s Trade Finance Division during the Asian financial crisis. As president of JETRO New York, he worked with the Japanese consulate and business community to assist evacuated businesses and their employees in the aftermath of Sept. 11 2001.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.