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Editorial: Sugawara’s only choice is to resign from Diet over gift-giving

  • June 20, 2020
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 2:14 p.m.
  • English Press

Isshu Sugawara is grossly mistaken if he believes he was sufficiently forthright at a news conference on June 16 to take political responsibility for a scandal that cost him his Cabinet post as economy minister last October.

 

Sugawara, a Lower House member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, stepped down after less than two months in the job over allegations his office lavished gifts on constituents in violation of the Public Offices Election Law.

 

After months of refusing to offer a full explanation, Sugawara conceded at the news conference that some of the gifts contravened the law. He acknowledged that his aides gave monetary offerings at the wakes or funerals of local constituents.

 

The law, in principle, bans lawmakers from giving money or other valuables to constituents in their districts.

 

Lawmakers are allowed to offer “koden” condolence money to voters only when they themselves hand it to the bereaved families. But they are prohibited from letting their aides bring the money on their behalf or presenting flowers placed beside the bed of a deceased person during the wake.

 

Sugawara said such gifts totaled about 300,000 yen ($2,800) on average over the course of a year between 2017 and 2019.

 

What cannot be overlooked is Sugawara’s admission that he was aware of the illegality of these gifts. He should be held strictly responsible for having knowingly and repeatedly committed violations of the law over a period of years.

 

But Sugawara refused to leave the party or resign from his Diet seat.

 

He claimed that he had taken responsibility for these violations by resigning from a senior post at the party’s task force for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics and donating three months of his salary as a Diet member for the relief of survivors of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan.

 

But these actions do not amount to a proper way of compensating for his mistakes.

 

There are also allegations that Sugawara gave summer and year-end gifts to his supporters and fellow lawmakers in the form of expensive melons, crab and other pricey items.

 

At the news conference, Sugawara offered no clear answers to questions about these gifts, saying he could not locate the pertinent documents. Then what did he actually do to clarify the facts about these allegations during the past eight months? His answers to these questions were far from a sincere response to the allegations.

 

“As a member of the Diet, which is in charge of making laws, I intend to return to the starting line and devote myself to doing my duty so that I can help prevent a further deepening of public distrust of politics,” Sugawara said.

 

If this was said with sincerity, he should resign as a lawmaker with a good grace and make a fresh start.

 

It is hard not to ask what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried to achieve with his Cabinet reshuffle in September following the Upper House election. Two heavyweight ministers–Sugawara and the justice minister, Katusyuki Kawai–resigned over allegations of election irregularities in less than two months after the reorganization.

 

Both individuals were serving in their first Cabinet portfolios.

 

In the following months, neither Abe nor the LDP leadership urged them to offer clear and convincing explanations about the allegations or take responsibility for them.

 

Kawai and his wife, Anri, an Upper House member, were arrested by Tokyo prosecutors on June 18 on suspicion of handing out a large sum of money to buy votes in her successful campaign for the 2019 Upper House election. Sugawara is under criminal investigation as a criminal complaint has been filed against him.

 

These scandals have underscored the fact that many of Abe’s Cabinet appointments were by no means based on their fitness for the jobs, as Abe has claimed, but rather misguided decisions to reward his close aides.

 

Every time a Cabinet minister bowed out, Abe said he is responsible for having appointed them to the posts. If he is sincere about what he has said, Abe should agree to an opposition request to convene a Budget Committee session even while the Diet is in recess and answer questions head-on.

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