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Wed, Mar 27, 2002 - Page 19 News List

Japan's corrupt politicians bad for its economy

As unemployment climbs and deflation worsens, politicians are spending more time worrying about their own bank accounts than helping their constituents

By William Pesek Jr  /  BLOOMBERG , TOKYO

It takes just two words to enrage the average Japanese person these days: Muneo Suzuki.

The former political heavyweight, who two weeks ago resigned in disgrace from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, personifies all that is wrong in the world's second-biggest economy. He reluctantly quit the party amid allegations of bid rigging and influence-peddling to direct lucrative Foreign Ministry aid contracts to companies from his constituency.

Suzuki's sordid tale is just one of many to come to light in the past two weeks. Koichi Kato, who made a run for Japan's top job less than two years ago, resigned from the LDP after a former aide was arrested on tax evasion charges. This week, Social Democratic Party lawmaker Kiyomi Tsujimoto admitted to spending a former aide's salary on personal expenses.

Corruption scandals are hardly new in Japanese politics -- 1970s Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was charged with accepting about US$1.7 million in bribes from Lockheed Corp to help the US airplane maker sell 21 jets to a Japanese airline.

Still, the latest rash has captivated public imagination. They have also reminded the world of the corruption that exists at the highest levels of Japanese government -- and undermines it. As the nation's economy crumbles, some politicians are too busy seeking power or lining their pockets to fix the problem.

The events show just how disconnected many politicians are from Japan's electorate. As unemployment climbs to record levels, deflation worsens and bankruptcies soar, politicians are doing nothing to stop the bloodletting. Worse, many spend more time worrying about their own careers -- and bank accounts -- than the people they're meant to represent.

No one's naive enough to believe Japan has a monopoly on corruption -- it's got lots of competition right here in Asia. Yet, as Suzuki's case attests, Tokyo is rich with examples of lawmakers and bureaucrats misusing funds. Look no further than Japan's Foreign Ministry, where bureaucrats used a secret slush fund to wine and dine diplomats, or local governments, where myriad small-town mayors have been charged with bid-rigging offenses.

Things would seem less dire if forces were in place to clean the smear of corruption and cronyism from the LDP. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi certainly hasn't lived up to his campaign promise to "Change the LDP, Change Japan!" Now, as Koizumi approaches the end of his first year in office, it's clear that it's business as usual in Japanese politics.

For all his assertions to the contrary, Koizumi has proven to be an old-style LDP apparatchik. Sure, he wears nicer suits, has better hair and speaks differently than his comrades, but he's cut from the same cloth.

Koizumi's all-talk-no-action act has restored the cloud of gloom and uncertainty hanging over Tokyo. That's quite a letdown for this one-party nation of 126 million people, who lack anything approaching a viable opposition. The LDP has ruled for all but 10 months since the US occupation forces pulled out in 1952.

Since the LDP is mostly a network of entrenched politicians looking out for themselves, change is pretty much impossible.

Is it any wonder so many Japanese citizens have disengaged from the political process? That they don't get to vote directly for the Prime Minister is one reason for the lack of grass-roots activism.

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