From drunken sprees in the Vatican to suicide by dog leash, Japan beats the world when it comes to political scandals

Power is said to corrupt, absolute power to corrupt absolutely. But in Japan, just getting elected seems to have this effect—politicians here have one of the poorest reputations for honesty and integrity in the world. In honor of next weekend’s Lower House elections, we take a colorful look back at some of the country’s most memorable political scandals.


The wide-ranging Lockheed scandal, involving a diverse cast of politicians, businessmen and yakuza fixers, is often seen as the culmination of the career of Kakuei Tanaka, once described by Time magazine as Japan’s “paragon of corruption.” When allegations surfaced in 1976 that the Lockheed Company had been paying billions of yen to secure aircraft contracts, Tanaka had already stepped down as prime minister over an earlier misdemeanor. When eventually found guilty of taking $2 million in Lockheed bribes, in 1983, the former PM was able to stay out of jail thanks to legal loopholes and with the full support of his Niigata constituents, many of whom had benefited from decades of lavish pork-barrel politics.


When Sosuke Uno became Prime Minister in 1989, the LDP was reeling from an affair known as the Recruit scandal. The dweeby-looking Uno hardly seemed the man to restore confidence, and support for him started ebbing away almost immediately. The killer blow, however, was struck by his former geisha mistress, Mitsuko Nakanishi, whose revelations about the PM’s arrogance and stinginess were picked up by the media. Divorced before becoming a geisha, Nakanishi clearly had an agenda of her own, telling reporters that Japanese women have “always been beaten down by men and have always quietly endured the pain.”


With yakuza connections, a propensity to “forget” important details after a few drinks, and his own personal mahjong parlor, LDP lawmaker Shin Kanemaru was the epitome of the crooked political fixer. When Sagawa Kyubin, a growing provincial delivery company with no connections to the old zaibatsu and little political leverage in Tokyo, wanted to make the step up to the big league in the late ‘80s, Kanemaru was the go-to guy. Distributing billions through late-night mahjong games with other politicians, he was able to set the scene for Sagawa’s meteoric growth, while also choosing a few prime ministers along the way, before scandal downed him in 1992.


In Japan, suicide is often the honorable way out—but not when you do it like Toshikatsu Matsuoka. In 2007, the then Agriculture Minister was found hanging in his pajamas from a dog leash in a parliamentary dormitory. This followed allegations of bid-rigging, dodgy political contributions, and perhaps the most pathetic excuse in the history of Japanese politics. Asked by reporters why he had claimed ¥29 million for “utilities” for his parliamentary office—where rent, electricity and water are free of charge—he replied, “We’ve installed nantoka (whatchamacallit) rejuvenated water in our plumbing.”


Exemplifying the trend in Japanese political scandals toward the baffling and pathetic rather than the sinister and malign, Shoichi Nakagawa’s inebriated performance at the meeting of G7 finance ministers in Rome in February has nevertheless spawned its own conspiracy theory. Nakagawa’s behavior was so odd—15 minutes after drunkenly dozing off at a press conference, he visited the Vatican Museum, where he crossed a barrier and sat on the famous statue of Laocoön—that some saw it as a concerted attempt to devalue the yen by undermining international confidence in Japan’s financial stewardship.


Following the Nakagawa scandal, Prime Minister Taro Aso’s poll rating dipped below ten points, until a financial scandal involving the opposition DPJ saw it bounce back to 30-plus. The surge lasted until May, when it was revealed that Yoshitada Konoike, the 68-year-old deputy chief cabinet secretary, had been using his official rail travel pass to take a younger married woman to a hot spring via shinkansen for a romantic weekend. “It is in my DNA from my grandfather,” Konoike explained to his forgiving constituents. “My father was the same, drank heavily and ran after women. That DNA is in me, too.”

Illustrations: Nick Boles
Words: C.B.Liddell

21st August, 2009

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