Journalists in Toyama Ferret Out Shady Payments to Local LegislatorsSociety
The people of Toyama Prefecture pride themselves on their local character, which they describe as being “earnest and honest, come what may.” The prefecture is home to the largest concentration of industry on the Sea of Japan coast, with large numbers of blue-chip companies in fields like pharmaceuticals and chemicals. The section of Route 41 between Toyama City, the prefectural capital, and Takayama in neighboring Gifu Prefecture, has been nicknamed “Nobel Highway,” because five Nobel laureates were born along this 90-kilometer stretch of road. The prefecture also boasts beautiful natural scenery, including spectacular views of the Tateyama Mountain Range. And the strength of the local economy is accompanied by the nation’s top level of home ownership, along with one of the highest rates of local employment of new graduates.
In 2016, however, Toyama was hit by revelations of political malfeasance in sharp contrast to its “earnest and honest” image. Fourteen members of the capital city’s municipal assembly stepped down after it was learned that they had drawn funds improperly from their expense accounts, which provide a maximum of ¥150,000 a month in reimbursements for political activities. The resignations resulted from stories by local journalists who filed disclosure requests for the relevant records, pored diligently through the piles of paper, and found numerous irregularities, including forged and padded receipts.
Local broadcaster Tulip Television received prizes for journalistic excellence in recognition of its reporting of the scandal from organizations including the Japan National Press Club, Japan Congress of Journalists, and Japan Commercial Broadcasters Association. And the regional daily Kitanippon Shimbun received prizes from the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association and JCJ.
Evenings Combing Through Accounting Slips
In mid-July 2016 two journalists at Tulip TV in Toyama, reporter Sunazawa Satoshi and copy editor Miyagi Katsufumi were spending their evenings poring over piles of paper. In front of them were copies of some 4,300 accounting slips recording the political activity reimbursements paid to the 40 members of the municipal assembly in fiscal year 2013. They had finally received these copies more than 40 days after filing a disclosure request for them on May 31.
These reimbursements are paid to the legislative factions within the assembly, and the names of the individual legislators are not recorded on the slips. At first, Sunazawa recalls, going through the documents was like grasping at thin air. Tulip TV has only about 70 employees, with just 20 or so directly responsible for program production and news broadcasting. Sunazawa and Miyagi would start their task at around 8 pm, after finishing their regular work for the day, and they would continue till after midnight. What motivated their efforts? As Miyagi explains, “I had a strong feeling that it would be wrong to let this information remain secret and allow politics to continue as usual.”
Hasty Approval of a Hike in Assembly Members’ Pay
The original impetus for the investigation came on April 11, 2016, when the chairman of the Toyama municipal assembly paid a sudden call on the mayor to present a request for a hike of about ¥100,000 in the ¥600,000 monthly compensation of assembly members. Local media organs were informed of this city hall visit only 20 minutes in advance, and they were unable to get camera crews to the site in time to record the event; the only coverage was by national public broadcaster NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), whose Toyama bureau is located just across the street from city hall. The mayor passed the proposal on to the municipal compensation council for deliberation. After just two meetings in May, the council recommended approval of the hike. The council held its meetings behind closed doors, and the contents of its deliberations were not promptly made public.
Katagiri Hideo, who heads the local news department at Kitanippon Shimbun, notes that the size of the hike was out of line with the sensibilities of ordinary citizens and that it was approved with excessive haste. The newspaper filed a disclosure request for the minutes of the council’s meetings, and on June 9, while the assembly was in session, it printed the entire texts of the minutes, filling an entire page of that day’s edition. The records showed that some council members had opposed the hike but that it ended up being approved by a majority vote, even though the grounds for the ¥100,000 increase were never made clear.
Also on June 9, Nakagawa Isao, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party faction in the assembly, obstructed a female reporter from Kitanippon Shimbun who was in the faction’s anteroom asking questions. He berated her, knocked her over, and grabbed her notes. And he ordered the assembly member she had been interviewing to stop talking to her. This obstruction was widely reported in the national news. Nakagawa subsequently explained that reporters must have the faction chairman’s permission before interviewing members in the anteroom. And he stuck to his peculiar claim that he had not “stolen” the reporter’s notes but had merely “collected” them.
On June 15, the ordinance raising assembly members’ compensation was approved by a majority in the assembly, including the members of the LDP faction.
Following the Paper Trail to the “Boss”
Sunazawa and Miyaki focused their attention on the payment slips relating to the political activities of this LDP faction chairman—considered to be the assembly’s effective boss. The slips showed that eight public reporting sessions on municipal government affairs had been held in fiscal 2013 (April 2013 to March 2014), with as many as 300 citizens in attendance at each. The reimbursements were for the printing of handouts, and all the receipts were from the same printer. But the two journalists thought that both the number of meetings and the reported attendance levels seemed suspiciously high.
Around this time, Miyagi received a tip that Nakagawa was getting blank receipts and filling them in to claim falsified expenses. To check this out, he examined the user records at the municipal community center reported as the site of one of the public sessions, but there was no record of such a session. On August 18, Sunazawa and Miyagi directly asked Nakagawa about this discrepancy. Nakagawa brushed off the question, saying the meeting was held at a restaurant and that the handouts had indeed been printed. But the owner of the restaurant said that no such meeting had been held there on that date. The following day, Tulip TV reported this story as a scoop on its evening news program.
On August 30, Nakagawa resigned from the assembly, and the following day he held a press conference. There he admitted that he had filed for improper reimbursements using pads of blank receipts that he got from a printer he knew. (Subsequent investigations revealed that he had cheated the city of some ¥7.87 million in this way over the past five years.) Declaring, “I’m a person who can’t say no to an invitation,” he explained that he had used the money to pay for drinking sessions.
Assembly Members Fall like Dominoes
On September 1, Tulip TV reported another scoop, revealing malfeasance by Taniguchi Toshikazu, an LDP assembly member close to Nakagawa. The clue was that he had been filing for reimbursements using receipts from the same printer as Nakagawa. When questioned, he frankly acknowledged his wrongdoing, explaining that he had used the blank receipts at Nakagawa’s request to pad the amounts of his actual printing expenses and handed over the excess to Nakagawa in cash.
The investigative campaign heated up after this. Tulip TV received the reimbursement records for fiscal 2014 on August 16 and for 2015 on October 17. Other media organs also filed for disclosure of the information, and by late August they caught up with Tulip TV in the receipt of the relevant documents.
Katagiri at Kitanippon Shimbun recalls the media competition: “As of July we had scooped the story of political activity fund misuse by one prefectural legislator. Though we did a lot of investigating directed at the prefectural assembly, we were unable to find anything further. But the Toyama municipal assembly was different: The more we looked, the more dirt we found. The national dailies also sent lots of reporters to Toyama to beef up their own investigations, and we had an ongoing race to be first to break new revelations.”
Journalists going through the documents found many records written in the same hand, suggesting that somebody had been filling in blank receipts. They also found many in which the numbers seemed to have been rewritten to inflate the amounts. And when they checked the documentation for reported inspection tours by assembly members, they found one case where reimbursements were granted for a totally fictional tour. As a result of the revelations, 10 members of the assembly, including the chairman, stepped down in September, and the total number of resignations eventually reached 14. In December 2016 the assembly repealed the reimbursement hike that it approved back in June.
Timeline of Developments in the Toyama Municipal Assembly Scandal, April–November 2016
|April 11||Assembly chairman presents mayor with request for hike in assembly members’ monthly compensation from ¥600,000 to ¥700,000–¥730,000. Mayor indicates he will submit the request for review by council.|
|May 10||Compensation council meets behind closed doors to consider request.|
|13||Compensation council holds second meeting, votes to recommend approval.|
|19||Council chairman presents approval recommendation to mayor.|
|31||Tulip TV files request for disclosure of political activity reimbursement records for all assembly members from fiscal 2013 through fiscal 2015.|
|June 1||City submits bill to assembly for hike in members’ monthly compensation to ¥700,000.|
|9||LDP faction chairman Nakagawa Hideo obstructs coverage by reporter from Kitanippon Shimbun.|
|15||Assembly approves compensation hike.|
|July 13||Kitanippon Shimbun scoops suspected fund misuse by prefectural legislator Yago Hajime.|
|15||Tulip TV reporter Sunazawa Satoshi receives copies of 4,300 reimbursement slips for fiscal 2013 from the city, 45 days after filing for disclosure.|
|August 19||Kitanippon Shimbun scoops suspected fraudulent expense claims by Nakagawa.|
|30||Nakagawa resigns from assembly.|
|September 1||Tulip TV scoops collusion with Nakagawa by assembly member Taniguchi Toshikazu.|
|Subsequent revelations of improper claims push 10 additional members to resign by October 3.|
|November 6||Voters elect 13 new members in a by-election to fill an existing vacancy and seats of 12 who resigned.|
|Two members subsequently resign after the by-election, bringing total number to 14.|
On December 30, Tulip TV broadcast a documentary covering the course of developments and summing up the news reports on the case. The program exposed the gap between the impressive front the assembly presented and the lack of substance behind it, revealing the true nature of the assembly and the collusion between its members and the city government.
Channeling Public Anger into Greater Interest in Local Government
In November, shortly after the municipal by-elections, the publishers of Kitanippon Shimbun held an open symposium titled “Can the Municipal Assembly Change?” Over 800 citizens attended. And in January 2017 the paper started a major series of articles about the assembly, presenting revelations on topics including the sloppy handling of political activity reimbursements and the lack of checks on the payments, the dominance of a particular clique within the assembly’s LDP faction, and the secret set of rules that assembly members themselves had created for the padding of expense claims.
The series, which ran to 57 installments in five sections, also introduced advanced initiatives from places outside the prefecture that have reformed their assemblies, along with content encouraging citizens to audit assembly sessions by giving them pointers on how to follow the proceedings. As Katagiri explains, the earlier drive to uncover malfeasance had led to a series of resignations by assembly members, but it was not enough just to crow about having taken these members down. “We wanted to channel citizens’ anger and indignation toward active interest in the assembly and local government.
The municipal government of Toyama has traditionally been extremely closed. Of Japan’s 47 core cities, Toyama is the only one that does not yet provide live coverage of its municipal assembly sessions via cable television or the Internet. And the periodic Shigikai-dayori (News from the Municipal Assembly) that it publishes does not even record individual members’ votes on bills. But during the course of 2017, in response to the string of improprieties, the assembly made substantial progress toward greater openness. Political activity expense claims are now checked by an outside organ, and the receipts submitted can be viewed on the municipal website.
The public response so far, however, has been tepid. Only 26.9% of voters went to the polls for the November 2016 assembly by-elections, and the turnout for the combined mayoral and assembly elections in April 2017 was a disappointing 47.8%.
As Katagiri sees it, “This means that we can’t yet end our campaign. The issue now is how to turn voters’ anger into positive action and end their ‘we’ll leave it up to you’ attitude toward local democracy.” Miyagi at Tulip TV expresses a similar sentiment: “The purpose of the coverage wasn’t just to reveal malfeasance and get assembly members to resign. My idea was that local government should do more to address citizens’ real-life problems.”(Originally written in Japanese by Nippon.com editor Ishii Masato and published on December 28, 2017. Banner photo: Sheaves of documents obtained by local journalists from the municipal government recording reimbursements for assembly members’ political activities. Photo courtesy of Tulip Television.)