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[Editorial] Japan politics

Controversy over illegal political donations of 200,000 yen (2.7 million won) over four years has further shaken the fragile Naoto Kan administration of the Democratic Party of Japan with the resignation of Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.

As the donor happens to be a Korean restaurant owner in Kyoto named Jang, who says she did not know foreigners were banned from political donations, some may be seeing a pattern of xenophobic discrimination in the island country. Yet it also exposes an absence of tolerance that has kept Japan’s politics from moving ahead all these years.

Seiji Maehara made a series of apologies at the Diet last week. He acknowledged on Friday that his staff received the contributions from a 72-year-old woman resident of Korean nationality between 2005 and 2008. He had earlier apologized for a mistaken identity of a donor and for receiving contribution from a tax-evading firm.

The donation constituted a violation of the Japanese Law on Control of Political Funds, which prohibits lawmakers from receiving donations from foreign nationals or organizations controlled by foreigners.

Shoji Nishida, a member of the House of Councilors from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, made the disclosure in a Budget Committee session. As Maehara acknowledged the illegal donation, the opposition lawmaker told Prime Minister Naoto Kan: “The foreign minister is a person who has received donations from a foreigner. You should immediately dismiss him.”

Maehara and Jang were neighbors for 38 years. The Korean restaurateur made the donation in her Japanese name, suspecting no legal problem in doing so, and Maehara did not know she was making the annual donations. In the opposition offensive based on microscopic scrutiny of political funds, these circumstances were not given any consideration.

Surprisingly, Japan’s conservative media and opposition politicians tended to link the Korean woman’s donation to Korean residents’ moves to win voting rights in Japanese elections, a matter that was favorably considered by leaders of the ruling DPJ. Some newspapers pointed out that Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan had reminded Maehara of Seoul’s continuing concerns about the issue when they met in Tokyo last month. The DPJ and its supporting groups have opened their memberships to foreign nationals.

The Yomiuri Shimbun, for one, strongly criticized the DPJ’s membership system, which the conservative daily feared would in effect allow non-Japanese citizens to influence the selection of the prime minister. “The nation’s foundation will be damaged if they (DPJ leaders) compete among themselves with promises to pass a pending foreign suffrage bill to garner votes of DPJ members and supporters in the party’s presidential election,” a recent Yomiuri editorial asserted.

The 600,000 Korean residents in Japan, the legacy of Japan’s colonization of Korea, cannot accept it when Japan put them into the general category of “foreign residents” to restrict their civil rights. Like Jang in Kyoto, they find it unfair to be prohibited from making even small donations to Japanese politicians after living in the country for generations.

Maehara called Jang to convey his regret for the controversy over her donations and the Korean resident woman said she was deeply sorry for having caused him such serious trouble. The political career of one of the future leaders of Japan has come to a halt, at least for now, but many more will share Maehara’s fate as long as the self-consumptive, cleaner-than-thou contests continue in Tokyo party politics, sometimes sprinkled with xenophobia as in the latest episode.