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The Chief Cabinet Secretary on the pensions issue December 11, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Japan, Politics.
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Nobutaka Machimura, Chief Cabinet Secretary in Yasuo Fukuda’s current cabinet, finally comes clean about the promise the LDP gave to voters ahead of the election (which they lost anyway).

「最後の1人まで3月末までにやるというわけではなく、選挙なので『年度末まですべて』と縮めて言ってしまった」

We didn’t mean that every last case was to be completed by the end of March, but it was an election so we said that “we will complete it all by the end of the financial year”.

Oh, OK then.

That is a pretty staggering admission, though.

If that is’t a clear confession of an attempt to mislead the electorate (which failed miserably anyway), I don’t know what is.

I suggest that the people within the cabinet who made the commitments take responsibility, and not in the typically Japanese “I will take responsibility by persevering and delivering on my original promise (albeit with a grossly revised schedule)” fashion.

If the media had any balls (and weren’t in bed with the political circus), they’d drag up every instance of footage they have of LDP members during the election campaign insisting that they would get the problem resolved by March, and call for all their heads.

There is one critical difference between being a political commentator talking head on TV and being the Minister for Health, Labour and Welfare. The public expects accountability in the latter, especially when making bold promises. (In an ideal world, the former would also be held accountable for their words too, and we’d see much less of clueless idiots like Norio Minorikawa (Mino Monta for people watching TV), but I don’t see that happening any time soon)

We may see an election sooner than most pundits thought, although the thought of the inept (and in-fighting) DPJ coming to power, backed by conservative trade unions (in Japan that isn’t an oxymoron…) isn’t likely to produce much of a change in my book.

Japanese journalist killed in Burma (or should that be Myanmar…. hmmm) September 28, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Politics.
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[Update 9/28. see link in Durf's comment to see what stray fire looks like in Myanmar. The Japanese government will "lodge a protest". Pathetic, as usual]

So, the Japanese news is running reports that a Japanese cameraman was killed in Rangoon (or should that be Yangon). The official reports from Burmese (Myanmarese?) authorities say that they found some bodies including that of the Japanese cameraman with gunshot wounds. “Stray fire”, allegedly.

I’m thinking it is not likely that the average Buddhist monk protestor is packing a piece.

On the other hand, it isn’t unheard of for authorities to “accidentally” shoot media personnel. By firing a HEAT round from a 120mm smoothbore at a hotel, or using a Galil or Mauser or similar, for example. (Or A-10 Thunderbolt II’s firing AGM-65 Maverick guided air to ground missiles at TV stations) I suspect the Burmese military junta’s thugs police and riot squad are even more liberal with their use of firearms if they think no-one is watching…

Anyway, it is interesting to note the fact that the Japanese press refer to the country as Myanmar, whilst the British and US press prefer to stick with Burma, in apparent protest at the fact that it was the military junta who insituted the name change. Japan was of course one of the first nations to recognise the military junta.

In contrast to the widespread public pressure in Europe and the US targetting companies with activities in Burma, there doesn’t seem to be a similar awareness in Japan. Part of this maybe due to the historically close ties between the two nations but is probably for the most part another indication of the closeness of ties between political and business interests in Japan, aided and abetted by the media, of course….. Japanese companies usually hide behind the excuse that politics is for the government and politicians to deal with and that they defer to government policy regarding foreign relations. Given the Japanese government is less than forceful in its foreign policy, that is a nice cop-out. A representative sample of Japanese companies with a Burmese presence is here(Mitsui, Marubeni, Suzuki, Fujitsu, Tasaki Shinju are named). It is far from a comprehensive list, other major trading companies (Mitubishi Corp, Sojitz) are also there or have found creative ways to make money from Burma related business (eg Mitsubishi Corp selling goods to French oil company Total for its exploration business in Burma but insisting it is working with Total HQ in France), and the big one missing is Nippon Oil Corporation. I do understand the argument against economic sanctions (it hurts the downtrodden innocent general population before it hurts the ruling class…etc), but when was the last time providing non-democratic governments with a financial lifeline made these people turn around and see the light? And no-one seems to have an issue with boycotting corporations. Is there such a fundamental difference?

British media on Abe and post-Abe September 15, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Japan, Politics.
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Gen writes:

“This is just embarrassing:
British newspapers call for dynamic PM, slam Abe’s record

British newspapers were united Thursday in their calls for Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party to appoint a reforming and dynamic leader following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s abrupt resignation on Wednesday.

All agreed Abe’s performance had been poor on the domestic front but commended his rapprochement with China and South Korea.

The Times was particularly strong in its criticism of Abe. It claimed that following his party’s defeat in recent upper house elections, he brought back the Old Guard into the Cabinet. This showed Abe was still tied to the old system of factions and political dynasties which has held Japan back previously. It states the fact that Aso is seen as a favorite to succeed Abe shows that the LDP has not really changed.

Well, if they want someone to continue the apparent thaw with China, Fukuda is the man (although he does look a bit like an orang-utang. I do like his wry sense of humour, and he certainly has more depth than Abe, not that that is a challenge).

Given my recent conjecture regarding Koizumi’s growing influence, it should be mentioned that Koizumi and Fukuda have a long history, and despite the apparent distance between them in recent years, Koizumi did his political apprenticeship under Takeo Fukuda, Yasuo’s father, and it should be no surprise to see Koizumi endorse Fukuda this time around. (Note however, that Koizumi’s sidekick Iijima and Fukuda don’t get along, hence Iijima tendering his resignation to Koizumi apparently in protest at Koizumi’s support of Fukuda)

As for The Times’ insightful commentary regarding Abe’s ties to the old system…. Duh. It would have been surprising to see Abe, from a blueblood political dynasty, do any different, regardless of rhetoric about moving on from the post-war regime. The only thing Abe/LDP and Ozawa/DPJ share is a wish to move to a two party system. That would be great if the two parties reflected genuine choices….

Of course, neither Aso or Fukuda are likely to be any different on this matter, both of them again being hereditary politicians.

Aso and Abe are of course distant relatives (Aso’s aunt married the cousin of Abe’s grandfather and great-uncle). Abe’s grandfather was PM Kishi, whose brother Eisaku Sato was also PM. Aso’s father-in-law was PM Zenko Suzuki, and both ex-PM Kiichi Miyazawa (Aso and Miyazawa’s cousin both married PM Suzuki’s children) and ex-PM Ryutaro Hashimoto (whose wife’s grandfather was the brother of Abe’s paternal grandmother) are also connected. That makes it 6 prime ministers in that (very) extended family.

Lest it be forgotten, Aso’s youngest sister married into the Imperial Household and is now Princess Nobuko. Another interesting fact- Taro Aso is roman catholic, due to the influence of his grandmother (whose influence also led to Shigeru Yoshida converting just prior to his death – Yoshida had a roman catholic funeral as well as a state funeral along more traditional Japanese lines), and his younger sister went to a finishing school in Kent with roman catholic ties….

Anyway, a choice quote from the Guardian piece:

“[...] Japan also needs a leader who can straddle the world stage.

Mr Aso is unlikely to be such a man. His favourite subject is talking about manga comic books.”

Really? Aso, whilst certainly prone to foot in mouth disease, and apparently not a man of tact or subtlety, at least in public, he has been Foreign Minister and has more international exposure than most Japanese politicians. He has a decent command of English (at least good enough for reading speeches).

He spent time at both Stanford and the London School of Economics as a postgraduate. He never did finish his masters degree at either. It is reputed that he was forced by his maternal grandfather to quit Stanford and move to the UK. His grandfather apparently visited him when Taro was at Stanford, and was distraught that he was picking up an American accent Apparently his grandfather told his mother to tell Taro to move to the UK immediately. LOL.

So, having moved on to the LSE, he again was ordered back to Japan before he could finish his studies.

Aso recalls this series of events in a recent speech.

Aso’s maternal grandfather is ex-PM Shigeru Yoshida, of course.

If Koizumi’s tenuous connections to the University of London are such a big deal and qualifies him as some sort of globally minded politician, Aso actually studying at Stanford and LSE as a postgrad certainly qualifies him to at least the same degree.

Anyway, none of this matters, because it seems that Fukuda is a certainty for the top job, unless someone can find some juicy scandal before the 23rd.

Was a financial scandal the reason for Abe’s departure? September 13, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Japan, Politics.
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Local sources are saying that Shukan Gendai magazine will publish an article in this week’s edition (out on Saturday 15th) regarding financial transactions which are tantamount to tax evasion.

The story goes like this: When Shintaro Abe, also a prominent LDP politician during his time (he served ministereal posts at MAFF and MITI as well as the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and also served as LDP General Secretary), passed away in 1991, he donated his estate to his own political organization, thereby allowing his son (sons?) to evade paying inheritence tax. The amount of tax which would otherwise have been payable is quoted as being as much as JPY300M.

Whilst the incident happened too long ago for there to be any legal implications, because of the large sum of money involved, and the fact that this method of avoiding tax is only available to people who control their own political organizations, it is forseeable that such facts would lead to criticism of politicians using their special status, taking advantage of mechanisms available to a select few to avoid paying taxes like every other normal person.

Whilst donations are not forbidden per se, if the donation appears to have been made as a method of avoiding tax, it would have been a huge blow to an administration which has had more than its fair share of financial scandals. This may be the biggest (at least in terms of sum) of them all.

The really interesting question which arises from this is, how common a practice is this within political circles? Japanese media is so often just content with focusing on one specific target, even when practices are fairly widespread.

There are so many hereditary politicians in Japanese politics, I hope someone will have a good look at the financial circumstances of all of these political family businesses. (currently about 40% of LDP diet members are 2nd or 3rd generation politicians)

[I personally think this scandal, even if it proves to be true, would not have been, in isolation, enough to tip Abe over the edge. I think that he has been told by people like Koizumi and Mori, and also by GWB that they aren't going to stand by him any longer. Note the change in GWB's language at the APEC summit, compared to previous meetings where he was clearly more buddy-buddy with his lapdog Shinzo]

A possible reason for Abe’s sudden departure September 12, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Politics.
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[Short version - One word: Koizumi]

Long version….

Abe stated that he will put his job on the line and fight for an extension of the anti-terrorism law which expires November 1st, giving reassurances to this effect to Japanese allies during the APEC summit in Australia.

Whilst the opposition has a majority in the upper house of the diet, the lower house is able to push through legislation which is rejected by the upper house if a 2/3 majority vote is attained. Given the LDP/Komeito alliance has a 2/3 majority in the lower house (331 seats out of a total 480), it would have been technically possible for Abe to push the legislation through.

If LDP and Komeito members could be counted on to toe the cabinet line.

And therein lies the potential explanation for Abe’s departure.

Whilst Abe was chosen as successor to Koizumi in a resounding endorsement last year, this was due to Abe’s popularity with the electorate and Koizumi’s endorsement of his chosen successor, and not because Abe holds political power within the LDP machine. There are a large number of novice politicians within the LDP’s 305 members of the lower house, due to the landslide victory in the September 2005 elections. Many of these first time politicans belong to the so-called Group of 83 (which actually comprises of 85 members now), a group also dubbed “Koizumi’s Children”. It is no secret that the loyalty of this significant block rests with Koizumi (and by extension, Mori), nor that most of them were voted in because of the immense popularity of Koizumi, and that a significant majority of them are likely to face an up-hill battle to retain their seats without the ability to ride the coattails of a popular leader.

The recent election defeat has resulted in Koizumi strengthening his influence, as any major defection from the LDP will make it difficult to pass legislation, particularly anything which requires a 2/3 majority. Koizumi has kept his head low, and his “children” have toed the party line thus far, but that 80something block cannot be counted on if there was a fundamental disagreement between the PM and Koizumi.

Koizumi has been rumoured to be extremely displeased at the recent reports that Hirao Takenuma, kicked out of the LDP for opposing Koizumi’s pet postal reform proposal, was being considered for rehabilitation. That on top of the make-up of the newly announced cabinet which took on a more traditionalist and inclusive hue, and maybe Koizumi has just had enough of Abe (and the old school factions of the LDP, who have begun reimposing themselves).

If Abe has indeed lost the support of Koizumi, he would not have been able to command the required 2/3 majority in the lower house, and going through the legislative process would have been a waste of time, and just delayed any recommencement of the MSDF refueling operations. By resigning now, he may have been able to secure, for his successor, the assurance that the LDP machine will vote as a block to push through the required legislation.

Perhaps this is a prelude to Koizumi becoming more active in politics again. He still retains significant power in the background because of his “children”, but once those seats are up for reelection (and most of the novices will likely lose their seats), he will again become a marginal figure within the LDP. Therefore, if he is thinking about reimposing himself on the Japanese political landscape, the clock is ticking.

Breaking – Abe to resign September 12, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Japan, Politics.
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This is totally unheard of. A PM resigning right after opening a new diet session, two days ago. If he performs true to form, he will sulk away without giving adequate explanation.
No doubt he should have gone, but the timing, as with so much about Abe, is woeful. I’m sure the LDP are livid. I suspect the DPJ would also have prefered to have kept on beating on Abe, rather than a new PM.

More after Abe’s press conference….

White Collar Exemption bill to be renamed September 11, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Politics.
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The new Minister for Health, Labour, and Welfare, Yoichi Masuzoe, has apparently called for the proposed white collar exemption bill to be renamed, because of the negative image attached with the current name.

The white collar exemption bill calls for increasing the number of white collar workers who will not be eligible for overtime pay, and has also been called the “no overtime pay” bill, which obviously doesn’t go down well with significant portions of the electorate.

So, Minister Masuzoe has decided it shall be called the “Happy Family” Bill. (家族団欒)

I guess the assumption is that with no incentive of overtime pay, workers will go home earlier and spend more time with their families and that will lead to some model of happy family life.

Maybe the fact that his appointment to the MHLW post has been seen as responsible for the (vanishingly brief) opinion poll recovery after the cabinet reshuffle, or the positive response to his theatrical (although probably heartfelt) performance lambasting MHLW officials who have recently been exposed as embezzling pensions funds (as well as screwing up the pension fund records) over decades and the organisation for being less than forward about making these incidents public or even punishing those involved, has gone to his head, but this latest attempt at media politics may be rather ill-advised.

Firstly, it is no secret that the white collar exemption bill is being pushed by the Keidanren and other big business lobbyists who are keen to add another way to reduce their wage bill. Apparently the vast restructuring over the course of a decade and hiring part-time or casual labourers (often illegally) in their place isn’t enough. Does Masuzoe want to be identified as another big business lapdog?

Secondly, exemption status already exists for people in managerial positions. There are actually several criteria which have to be met for exemption status to take effect, but the labour bureaux are lax about enforcing these criteria, which means that many companies again break the law by conferring vacuous managerial titles to employees who do not have the ability to control their workday as required by the exemption criteria. Given that many people who don’t conform to the current criteria are being denied overtime pay, it is natural for workers to fear that any new guidelines will also be subject to interpretation/(un)enforcement creep. Without meaningful changes to the way work is actually delegated to exempt employees, specifically with regards to realistic and achievable targets, and the explicit removal of time based management techniques (including but not limited to tactics like proclaiming flexible working hours but scheduling numerous regular meetings at the start/end of the day), this bill is certain to mean a reduction in the hourly wage of exempt employees.

Third, if the MHLW seriously thinks that the majority of people not covered by the current exemptions are in an economic position where they are willing and able to sacrifice money for more time with family to enhance their lifestyles, they really live in a parallel universe. Net earnings inclusive of overtime has not increased for the majority of middle class households for many years. Maybe these civil servants should swap places with a typical employee for a few months and find out what it is like in the real world.

Fourth, Masuzoe really shouldn’t talk about family issues, because that is just inviting the tabloids to take a good look at his personal life. Check out this week’s Shukan Bunshun magazine, as they have already started. Masuzoe has had an “unorthodox” personal life, by Japanese standards. He is currently on his 4th wife (his 3rd wife was Satsuki Katayama, another LDP politician), and has had 3 children, all out of wedlock (the first of which was born whilst Masuzoe was still technically married to Katayama). He is apparently currently being sued by the mother of the two younger children for breach of contract, according to the Bunshun article. Happy families indeed….

[For the record, I couldn't care less about what kind of family or personal or private life an individual cares to lead, as long as it is legal and consensual. What I don't care for is the pretense that this particular piece of legislation is being furthered for anything other than big businesses' selfish interests]

MoF to post debt clock on homepage July 31, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Finance, Japan, Politics.
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The Ministry of Finance is apparently going to post a “debt clock” on its homepage (reported here). The clock will show the amount of long term debt the nation is burdened with and how that is changing (increasing) with time . Japan’s long term debt is expected to rise to JPY773Trillion (JPY773,000,000,000,000) by year end 2007. That is about $60,000 for every man, woman and child. And increasing at a pace of JPY190,000 every second.

Then add the Financing Bills and short term debt, and
total debt tops JPY1x10^15….

Japanese debt clocks (such as this one here) have been around for years, one has to question why the MoF is getting around to doing this now. Are they seeing the light? Perhaps, but my money is on the theory that they are beginning a PR drive (with the cooperation of the media) to remind the public how indebted the nation is, as part of a plan to lower resistance to tax rises (and cuts in handouts) in the near future. (all the while continuing to funnel money to their pet projects and institutions which they will later join on retiring from the civil service, no doubt)

Update 8/1: Having had a look at the MoF homepage this morning, I don’t see the reported debt clock anywhere…. I’m going to keep an eye on the site to see if it does eventually appear. For a prefecture by prefecture breakdown, see here.

Comsn June 7, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, Japan, law, Politics.
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Just as I was going to bed last night, I caught the news that Goodwill Group was going to circumvent the sanctions imposed on its (fully owned) subsidiary Comsn related to the fraud (of taxpayers’ money no less) by transferring the care business to another group company, NSS corporation. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (hereafter the MHLW) apparently doesn’t have a problem with that and the existing licenses will be renewable by NSS. As far as Goodwill Group is concerned, it will basically be business as usual.

This is total Bullshit. (excuse my French)

I was so pissed off at the MHLW for allowing such a blatant attempt at circumnavigating the rules that I woke up at 4am in a really foul mood. I’m still angry as I begin to type this post at 4:10am.

(I don’t have much anger directed at the company, because I’d already decided based on past performance that they really don’t give two hoots about anything more than basic compliance to the letter of the law and have given up on them)

Comsn has a history of evading sanctions by winding businesses up when a realistic threat of an official sanction appears. The legal corporations are dissolved, and a new corporation is formed to pick up where the old one left over. All directed from HQ.

This latest attempt is much the same, albeit on a much larger scale.

It doesn’t surprise me that the MHLW is fine with this slight of hand, either. The timing of their announcement regarding the Comsn affair also appears to be a diversionary tactic, as they are also involved with the scandal surrounding the Social Insurance Agency and the 50million pensions records which are unaccounted for. Nice distraction, eh.

Wasn’t the Aneha scandal exposed just when the media started probing politicians’ finances? And Livedoor….? (Not saying that these wrongs should not be exposed, just that the timing of many of these scandals seems to be convenient. I guess they have a whole bunch of stories in their cache which they can whip out and offer to the media, so that the media can jump on these stories and plausibly explain the shift in attention from stuff which is embarassing to the government and bureaucrats, whilst the media is rewarded for its cooperation….)

Regardless of the timing of this current round of sanctions, Goodwill Group (a group who have been implicated on multiple occasions of illegal labour practices, and not just at Comsn) needed to be punished. Pity the central government bureaucrats colluded with the company to insure that no substantive punishment will be forthcoming.

The CEO of Goodwill Group is certainly well connected, and has a post within the Keidanren, who historically have been large clients of non-full time labour providers.

Crystal Group, which was shipping out labourers to various manufacturing giants in contravention of labour laws is now part of Goodwill Group, and Goodwill are also the people behind Mobaito.com, the leading mobile portal which is a marketplace to attract cheap, casual, day labour.

(Companies who have been found to be exploiting labourers by using firms like Crystal and breaking the employment laws reads like a who’s who of Japanese manufacturing – Canon, Toyota, Matsushita, Ricoh, Fuji Xerox, Nikon, NEC, Sony, Sharp, Sanyo, Fujitsu, Toshiba, NTT, Komatsu…. Fujio Mitarai, Chairman of Canon and head of the Keidanren criticized the labour laws for being too restrictive when his company was implicated for having thousands of labourers working under illegal schemes. The “miracle” of Japanese manufacturing companies’ financial performance during the decade+ long economic malaise is exposed as having been built upon the exploitation of the workforce, but as usual the media circus died down very quickly)

For all the drum beating that goes on about having to improve labour conditions and increase full time labour and reduce the number of especially young people who are not in full time employment, the establishment continues gleefully exploiting the situation.

At least some people are taking a stand. Governor Nisaka of Wakayama prefecture has stated in his weekly press conference today (June 7th) that he is not going to approve license approval requests from NSS.

Hopefully there are other politicans with a backbone who will follow Gov. Nisaka’s stance and say NO to exploitation of workers.

Update: 24 hours later, the MHLW is now saying that it will oppose Goodwill Group’s plan to transfer Comsn’s care practice to another subsidiary and thereby avoid sanctions. What has changed materially in the last 24 hours, apart from public criticism? Clearly these people are unfit to oversee anything.

I have a feeling that Goodwill’s founder will again claim he is being victimized. (for whatever reason….)

I’d be inclined to agree with him a bit if the other firms who have been similarly defrauding the taxpayers get off without similar punishment, but regardless of the punishments doled out (or not) to others, it doesn’t change the fact that Comsn has been engaging in a pattern of behaviour which was designed to avoid sanctions by dissolving a huge number of group companies just as these companies were being audited by local authorities, and this pattern is nothing if not premeditated and directed from the top of the organization.

Matsuoka’s reported suicide May 28, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Japan, Politics.
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I don’t think there is any need to rehash the details of the various scandals which Toshikatsu Matsuoka, the late minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries has been implicated in. (Google for a refresher course)

It is reported that he committed suicide, and most of the speculation seems to be giving one of three potential explanations as in the below excerpt from JapanProbe:

How should this be viewed? As an innocent man who couldn’t take the pressure of accusations? A shamed and guilt-ridden man who took responsiblity for his actions? Or possibly: a wrong-doer who has failed to take responsbility for his actions, and simply took the easy way out?

But are these the only three viable explanations?

There was another suicide which was not widely reported in the major newspapers (According to this article, only a regional edition of the Nikkei picked it up).

The suicide occured on May 18th, in Aso City in Kumamoto Prefecture, home to Matsuoka’s constituency. A 62-year old man hanged himself in his home. The man is said to have been a classmate of Matsuoka at school, and was believed to have been involved in some capacity with Matsuoka’s constituency office. The man’s name does not appear in the article (he is mentioned as Mr. “U”) – which, given the timing of the incident and the public interest in the death of a close acquaintance (if not direct subordinate) of a national politician embroiled in multiple scandals,seems rather “odd”.

Intial reports of Matsuoka’s suicide mentioned specifically that no suicide letter was found (eg this article). But a couple of hours later, we are hearing this.

Is it the real thing? Does Matsuoka finally give a full and truthful account of his involvement in the various scandals, or does he take those secrets to the grave?
If and when the contents of that letter become public, we’ll know if Matsuoka’s ultimate loyalties were to the electorate or to his associates who are probably trying, right now as I type this, to make sure that his untimely death will be the end of the matter. It would certainly give the media an excuse to claim that the matter is now closed.

If I were a betting man I’d bet that, being a typical ex-bureaucrat turned politician, his loyalties were with the people who drove him to suicide, and that he has taken his secrets to the grave.

I ‘d be happy to be proven wrong though, and regardless of his past actions, he would go up considerably in my (and may others’) estimation if his final act was to betray the clique he had become enslaved to, and as a result did something, finally, which was in the general public’s interest.

After all, Matsuoka was most likely just the latest in a long line of politicians who had sold out to maintain the status quo to provide lucrative contracts to businesses whose main purpose in life was to provide lucrative employment opportunities for retiring bureaucrats.

Update: A little bit of Googling reveals the identity of the man who committed suicide 10 days ago. His name is(was?) Yukihiro Uchino, and he was a candidate in January’s Aso-City council elections where he missed out on election by just 5 votes. (see results here)

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