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Party bosses fall in Japan's worst political corruption scandal in decades

Investigation officials from Tokyo's district prosecutors office head to an office of a Liberal Democratic Party faction led by politician Toshihiro Nikai, on Tuesday.
Kyodo via Reuters Connect
Investigation officials from Tokyo's district prosecutors office head to an office of a Liberal Democratic Party faction led by politician Toshihiro Nikai, on Tuesday.

SEOUL, South Korea — Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Friday replaced two of its top executives, as part of a purge related to the worst corruption scandal to rock the country in three decades.

The outgoing executives were in charge of policy and parliamentary affairs. They belonged to an LDP faction — a sort of party within a party — formerly led by the late ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Japan's current prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has been sacking party chiefs and Cabinet members to save his administration, as prosecutors investigate allegations that LDP ministers and lawmakers violated political finance laws.

"Japanese democracy's strength is going to be tested," says Hitoshi Tanaka, a former diplomat and special adviser to the Japan Research Institute, a consultancy and think tank.

Previous corruption scandals involving factions and money have led to the downfall of earlier administrations and Tanaka says he has "the feeling that the current political funds scandal may be deep enough to lead to regime change in this country."

The LDP has only lost power twice in seven decades, the opposition remains weak and divided, and it would take a massively damaging scandal to allow the opposition to take power.

A change of administration could lead to policy change, including toward the United States. But Tanaka says support for Japan's alliance with the U.S. is likely to remain solid.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, are looking into allegations that ministers and lawmakers took kickbacks for political funds they raised and poured millions of dollars in fundraising proceeds into slush funds. Kickbacks are not illegal in Japan, but must be recorded and reported, which the LDP politicians allegedly did not do.

Since the allegations came to light in November, several LDP politicians have resigned. In a statement cited by The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, the faction formerly led by Abe said, "We sincerely apologize for eroding trust in politics. We will provide utmost cooperation to the investigation and respond to it with sincerity." Other factions expressed similar sentiments, the newspaper said.

Tanaka says Abe was so powerful that his faction members apparently thought they could get away with flouting political finance laws.

"This type of very clear sort of crime has been conducted for such a long period of time," he says, "and I guess that this is very much to do with the abuse of power."

Prime Minister Kishida told reporters last week he felt a "strong sense of crisis" because of the scandal, and pledged to "work like a ball of fire" to regain the public's trust.

But opinion polls show overwhelming disapproval of his handling of the debacle. A poll by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper found 79% of respondents disapprove of his performance — worse than any Japanese leader in more than seven decades.

Since its creation 68 years ago, the LDP has been made up of competing factions. Faction bosses reward members with government posts and support at election time. Members support bosses by raising funds, voting for bills and voting for the faction heads to become the party's president, who usually becomes prime minister of Japan.

"The easiest way to understand factions is that they are basically groups who try to make their leader prime minister," says veteran political journalist Hiroshi Izumi. He says that behind the current scandal is a struggle among the factions.

Tanaka argues that the LDP's factional infighting of the past has been replaced by "a much more sort of amicable process" for selecting prime ministers. But he says Japan must overhaul the selection of party leaders, and do away with horse-trading among faction bosses behind closed doors.

"There is a need for much more open, competitive process to produce the political leader in this country," he says.

Izumi, though, says that the struggle is not just among factions, but between the prime minister and the judiciary.

Critics accused Abe of trying to extend the retirement age of top prosecutors, in order to have his ally in a position to shield him from corruption scandals.

Izumi says that before Abe was assassinated in July 2022, the leader was too powerful for the prosecutors to touch.

"Now it's been about a year and a half since Abe was shot and died," he says. "Just as prosecutors were planning to take their revenge, the slush fund case fell in their lap."

There's no public evidence of the feud Izumi describes. But Izumi believes the result of the scandal will be the end of the Abe faction, and a big shift in power within the LDP.

And that, he adds, may overshadow anything else Prime Minister Kishida achieves.

"He would put an end to Abe's dictatorial politics," Izumi says. "And Abe's faction, which symbolizes those politics, would be destroyed. I think that would be Kishida's legacy as prime minister."

The outcome, though, depends somewhat on the prosecutors. And they are up against the clock.

They can't arrest lawmakers while parliament is in session, so that gives them until the legislature reopens sometime in January to build their cases and go after their targets.

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Tokyo.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.