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When Ministers quit for bribing voters with melons and mangoes

For many in Japan, two recent resignations show that there is little leeway in the country for graft

In many parts of the world, the news of graft accusations leading to the immediate resignation of Cabinet Ministers would generate images of corruption on an operatic scale: briefcases stuffed with cash at the minimum. But in Japan, the Ministers for Trade and Justice recently resigned in quick succession over allegations involving gifts of melons and potatoes.

The first to go was Trade Minister Isshu Sugawara, in picture, who stepped down just a month after taking over the key post, following a report by the Shukan Bunshun magazine that claimed that he had gifted expensive melons, oranges and crabs to voters. He was also accused of offering 20,000 yen ($185) as condolence money to defray the costs of a funeral by the family of a supporter.

Less than a week later, it was Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai’s turn after another report in the same magazine alleged that his campaign staff had sent potatoes, corn, mangoes and other presents to constituents. A further charge was made against his wife, who is a member of the Japanese Parliament’s Upper House; it was claimed that she had paid her campaign staff twice the legal limit of 15,000 yen ($138) per day.

The two men, who were both first time Ministers, denied any wrongdoing but resigned nonetheless. Mr. Sugawara was quoted saying that his decision to step down was motivated by his desire to avoid slowing down parliamentary deliberations. Likewise, Mr. Kawai said his prompt resignation was done so as not to “harm the justice system through a loss of public trust.” The Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, accepted the resignations and apologised to “the people” for the errors in his judgment in appointing the alleged offenders.

“As the person who appointed him, I bear responsibility for this, for which I apologise to the nation,” Mr. Abe told reporters shortly after accepting Mr. Kawai’s resignation. “I will have to accept the harsh criticism of this situation and work even harder than ever.

For many in Japan, and indeed around the world, the resignations showcase probity, demonstrating just how little leeway there is in the country for transgressing laws. In an interview to The New York Times, political science professor Hiroshi Shiratoru said, “It is not a matter of whether it is 10,000 yen or 1 million yen. Even if it is 10 yen or 100 yen, it is a bit problematic for politicians to step over the rules… In a sense, we are a very serious nation.”

‘Ignoring larger transgressions’

But there are those who feel that perhaps Japan has a tendency to miss the woods for the trees, focusing on minor rules while ignoring larger transgressions. Certainly Japan is no stranger to entrenched corruption in both political and corporate institutions. In 2018, Mr. Abe himself faced two substantial charges of corruption and nepotism, including an illegal land deal that implicated his wife and indicated a vast cover-up by government officials. No resignations were forthcoming in its wake. The Prime Minister was also accused of cronyism in helping a friend win government approval to build a veterinary school worth millions of dollars on free land.

Despite a short term plunge in his popularity rating, Mr. Abe shook off the charges and came back to win another three-year term as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader later in the year. He is now set to become the longest serving Japanese Prime Minister in history, on November 19.

Japan’s corporate heavyweights are also not as “clean” as their image abroad suggests. Kobe Steel, Japan’s third-largest steelmaker, was indicted last year after it admitted that it had fabricated strength and quality data of products sold to hundreds of clients. A few years earlier Toshiba Corp, a nuclear power plant and semiconductor heavyweight, was found to have misled investors by filing false financial statements.

“The Iron Triangle of the LDP, bureaucrats and big business still runs the show where backscratching and corruption are extensive but rarely prosecuted,” Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Tokyo’s Temple University said. “Melons and mangoes are pricey in Japan but having to resign over doling them out to supporters cultivates an undeserved image of probity,” he added.

Fruit in Japan can indeed be more expensive than most people could ever believe. Specialty melons can easily cost around $200 a fruit and a pair of Yubari King melons set a record price earlier this year when they were auctioned for $45,000. It is not known exactly how pricey the fruits and vegetables that Mr. Sugawara and Mr. Kawai are accused of having gifted supporters were.

Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist and author based in Tokyo.

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