--The Asahi Shimbun, March 4
EDITORIAL: Ban corporate donations to restore public’s trust in politics
(社説)政治とカネ 企業献金のもとを断て

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Democratic Party of Japan leader Katsuya Okada on March 3 joined a growing list of political heavyweights whose party branches received contributions from companies that were awarded government subsidies.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Yamaguchi prefectural No. 4 electorate branch, which Abe heads, was found to have received donations from five companies, including 620,000 yen ($5,180) from two companies that qualified for industry ministry subsidies in 2012 and 2013. Similar donations have been received by LDP branches led by other Cabinet ministers.

The DPJ branch headed by Okada was found to have accepted 240,000 yen in 2011 and another 240,000 yen in 2012 from a company whose subsidiary had been designated as a recipient of agriculture ministry subsidies.

Under the Political Fund Control Law, companies are prohibited from making political donations for one year from the date they were notified by the government that they were designated as recipients of government subsidies. But the law does not apply to subsidies that “by nature do not generate profit,” such as those for study and research and disaster relief.

And the law does not hold the recipients of the donations accountable if they were not aware that the donors were receiving government subsidies.

The prime minister told the Lower House Budget Committee on March 3, “The donations in question include those about which the donor companies told my office quite clearly that the subsidies were of a nonprofitable nature.” Abe also said, “As for what I did not know, that’s the fact, and there is nothing more I can say about it.”

He spoke and acted as if this matter was none of his concern.

True, the law only forbids lawmakers from receiving donations if they are in full knowledge of the illegality of the act. But the money that changed hands amounted to hundreds of thousands of yen, and there are punitive provisions for donor companies.

It is only natural to expect politicians to deal with donations with extreme care.

And even with government subsidies that are deemed nonprofitable, determining their legitimacy should ultimately be left to the judiciary.

The law forbids government-subsidized companies from making political donations for a certain period to prevent any unexplained flow of money that can be used to establish a special relationship between government and business.

Should this waiting period be abolished, it would be tantamount to tacitly allowing government subsidies to be channeled to politicians’ war chests. これを認めたら補助金が政治家に還流することになりかねない。

Yet, politicians can escape responsibility by simply denying any knowledge.

The law must be immediately amended.

Corporate and industry group donations are inherently tricky by nature. If the donors expect “returns” on the money they give, that would be bribery of sorts. On the other hand, if the donor companies expect nothing in return for their donations, shareholders are bound to question why the donations are being made at all.

The only way to fundamentally resolve all these problems is to ban corporate and industry group donations altogether.

But the argument can also be made that if a ban is imposed, then donations can be given in the guise of personal contributions from corporate or industry group executives, and that would render the flow of money even harder to trace.

Still, unless drastic action is taken, the public’s trust in politics will only erode further.

And this is something the prime minister cannot just dismiss as none of his business.