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Journalists in Toyama Ferret Out Shady Payments to Local Legislators

Investigative reporting by local media organs was instrumental in forcing 14 Toyama municipal assembly members to resign after it was revealed that they had filed falsified expense claims. interviewed the key journalists who covered the scandal—and who hope that citizens will henceforth pay more attention to local government affairs.

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.

Above: A panoramic view of Toyama from the city hall observation tower. Below left: Toyama city hall. Below right: A December 2017 session of the municipal assembly.

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.”

Sunazawa (left) and Miyagi tackle the piles of reimbursement records. (Courtesy of Tulip TV.)

Sheaves of accounting slips with tags on many pages.

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.

  • [2018.02.05]
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