In Japanese politics, bribery and corruption occur from time to time. In a recent case, Tsukasa Akimoto, an up-from-the ranks Diet member of the Liberal Democratic Party and former state minister in the Cabinet Office in charge of integrated resorts businesses, including the introduction of casinos to Japan, was arrested on Dec. 25 for allegedly taking ¥3.7 million in bribes from the Chinese gambling company 500.com.
The casino-related bribery scandal did not stop with Akimoto’s arrest, either. Mikio Shimoji, a Diet member of Nippon Ishin no Kai, also admitted to receiving a ¥1 million bribe from an adviser of the same company. Four other LDP lawmakers were suspected of receiving money from the company, including former Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya.
Diet members are representatives of the people, and are able to exert political influence over lawmaking processes and certain businesses and industries. Needless to say, they earn decent wages.
Why, then, do some Diet members end up embroiled in bribery and corruption?
The Diet is the “highest organ of the state power” and the “sole lawmaking organ of the state.” It consists of two chambers, the House of Representatives (the Lower House) and the House of Councilors (the Upper House). Both chambers are composed of Diet members who serve as “elected members, representative of all the people.”
There are three main privileges for Diet members. First, they can receive an “appropriate annual payment” from the national treasury. Second, Diet members are “exempt from apprehension” when a Diet session is open. Third, they are not “held liable outside the House for speeches, debates or votes cast inside the House.”
There are, of course, additional perks that come with a seat in the Diet. For example, they can choose to receive 1) a free Japan Rail pass, including for bullet train Green Cars, 2) a JR pass plus airfare coupons for three round trips a month or 3) airfare coupons for four round trips a month.
As noted above, legislators receive “appropriate annual payment.” In 2019, it was announced that the average annual income of Diet members in 2018 was ¥26.57 million, inflated by the income of Jiro Hatoyama, the top earner of the year, who took in ¥1.74 billion. The income of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as the 27th earner, was ¥40.28 million.
But precisely how much is the annual income of a Diet member?
The basic monthly salary is ¥1,294,000 (¥15,528,000 annually). In addition, the annual bonus is ¥6,350,000. So the total annual income amounts to ¥21,878,000. Converted to U.S. dollars for the sake of comparison, the annual income of a Japanese lawmaker (about $201,800) is higher than that of a comparable legislator in the United States ($174,000), South Korea ($105,000), Germany ($102,600) and the United Kingdom ($91,200).
It is obvious that Japanese lawmakers earn higher wages compared with parliamentarians in other countries, as well as average Japanese workers.
On top of this, each Diet member can receive ¥1 million in a tax-free allowance known as bunsho tsūshin kōtsu taizaihi (budget for document, communications, transportation and accommodations) every month, totaling ¥12 million per year. Diet members can use this allowance for their official activities, but they are not required to submit receipts for its use. Of course, Diet members can save the rest of the allowance, if they prefer, so it can be regarded as a general source of tax-free income. Accordingly, the exact total annual income for a Diet member amounts to as much as ¥33,878,000.
Clearly, the annual income of Diet members is high. Why, then, does bribery and corruption occur in Japanese politics? It is because there is no guarantee that existing Diet members will win in the next election, and it costs considerable amounts of money to run for national election (the deposit for candidacy is ¥3 to ¥6 million). In this way, there is always the possibility that a Diet member will end up being unemployed after the election. Therefore, they tend to collect and save as much money as possible in their limited term in office.
The term of office in the Lower House is four years, but it can end earlier if the chamber is dissolved by the prime minister. So in reality, Lower House members work for less than three years in each term on average. The term of office for the Upper House is six years, and half of the members come up for election every three years. Some legislators have complained that their annual income is not necessarily sufficient for proper political activities and electoral campaigns, given the limited terms, especially in the Lower House.
For this reason, political parties throw fundraising events a couple times per year. Donors, as supporters of Diet members, purchase a fundraising ticket for ¥20,000 or so. This is how some Diet members are able to raise more than ¥10 million a day. Throwing political fundraising parties is lawful on the basis of Article 8-2 of the Political Funds Control Act. Likewise, donations to political groups are lawful, but Article 22-5 of the act bans political contributions from foreign persons and foreign entities.
To become Diet members, candidates need to have qualifications fixed by law (Japanese citizenship, over 25 years old for the Lower House, over 30 years old for the Upper House), and there is no discrimination based on “race, creed, sex, social status, family origin, education, property or income.” Having said that, unlike the case of second-generation Diet members or hereditary legislators, most young candidates or novice Diet members from humble backgrounds will need to save money on their own and prepare for the possibility of being unemployed.
Of course, bribery should not be tolerated or justified under any circumstances, and it is ultimately a question of the personal morality and integrity of each politician. But the unstable status and different economic backgrounds of Diet members might be regarded as one of the remote causes of bribery and corruption in Japanese politics.