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Assembly members traveling overseas again at taxpayer expense despite criticism

Members of the Kitakyushu Municipal Assembly pose for a picture in front of the city hall of the Spanish capital of Madrid in 2018 during a "research" trip. Some of the members were criticized for drinking during official duties. (Photo courtesy of the Kitakyushu Municipal Assembly secretariat)

FUKUOKA -- An increasing number of local assemblies are sending out their members on overseas trips for the stated purpose of research despite criticism that they are essentially sightseeing tours paid for partly by taxpayers, a recent Mainichi Shimbun survey has found.

Of the nation's 47 prefectural assemblies, 32 legislatures -- including those in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, Kanagawa south of Tokyo and Fukuoka in southern Japan -- had overseas research trip programs for their members in fiscal 2017, an increase from 24 in fiscal 2011, showed poll results. The number was 44 in fiscal 2000, but declined due to financial difficulties and societal pressure after the Great East Japan Earthquake that devastated many eastern and northeastern Japan prefectures. The survey was conducted in December last year targeting the secretariats of the legislatures of the prefectures and 20 major cities.

A total 29 assemblies actually dispatched their lawmakers in fiscal 2017, spending 301.97 million yen in total. By prefecture, Aichi in central Japan spent 26.24 million yen, followed by Fukushima in northeastern Japan that allocated 25.99 million yen and Kagawa in the west with 20.95 million yen. Reasons for resuming overseas tours by assembly members on prefectural expenses included "revitalization of research and study."

Those overseas trips have a legal basis in Article 100 of the Local Autonomy Act that authorizes local assemblies to carry out "research into the administration" of their prefectural and municipal governments. Under this arrangement, assembly members are commissioned by their legislatures to their members. Beside those commissioned trips, local lawmakers visit other countries using their own research allowances paid by their local governments using taxpayer funds.

The ceiling for expenses per assembly member for overseas trips varied between 600,000 yen in Hokkaido and 1.4 million yen in Fukushima, and no limit was set by 14 assemblies. Most prefectural governments required assembly members to submit reports on their trips abroad, but only 24, or three-quarters of the total, published them online.

Meanwhile, among the 20 "designated cities" with a population of half a million or more, 10 cities -- including Sapporo in the north, Yokohama south of Tokyo and Fukuoka in southern Japan -- had programs to send their assembly members overseas for research purposes in fiscal 2017. They spent a total of some 90 million yen on such trips, including 26.18 million yen by the Yokohama Municipal Assembly. The city of Kitakyushu will abolish its program from fiscal 2019 after its assembly members were criticized for drinking during the day when they visited Europe last year.

Kitakyushu spent some 8 million yen in public funds for the trip by the eight legislators and two city officials from June through July 2018 in Spain and Finland for the stated purpose of studying welfare and environmental policies. Scenes of some assembly members drinking wine during lunch or visiting tourism attractions were aired by a Japanese TV station, drawing some 800 complaints. A local NPO has filed a complaint seeking the return of the 8 million yen.

In the case of Kagawa Prefecture, six assembly members were found drinking or visiting tourism attractions during their visit to Italy and other locations in 2017. They are now fighting a lawsuit in which they have been demanded to repay the taxpayer money spent on their trip.

In the northern prefecture of Aomori, the district court in October 2018 ordered the governor to demand two assembly members pay back about 1.44 million yen in expenses for their travel to a Samba carnival in Sao Paulo in Brazil in a lawsuit filed by a local citizens group.

Some of the post-trip reports filed by assembly members are of questionable quality. In the case of Okayama Prefecture, 13 assembly members sent to the United States in 2016 submitted almost identical reports, which included copied texts from the Wikipedia online encyclopedia. Fukuoka prefectural officials were found to have drafted reports by some assembly members.

Professor emeritus Masayasu Kitagawa of Waseda University, a former Mie prefecture governor in central Japan, says that he thinks overseas research trips by local assembly members are necessary to "invigorate their activities," but pointed out that those outings should have clear purposes in the first place. "It is indispensable to make detailed reports on how to reflect the results of their findings on the way the local governments and assemblies are managed," he said.

Lawyer Satoshi Shinkai, director general of the national network of ombudsperson groups monitoring administrative wrongdoings, criticized that overseas trips by assembly members are "becoming like school excursions." Shinkai said that the assemblies are "resuming their overseas trip programs as public criticism has subsided." Professor Yoshihiro Katayama of Waseda University, who once served as the governor of Tottori Prefecture in western Japan, said such trips should be abandoned. "You can learn overseas examples from researchers and other sources," he said.

(Japanese original by Masanori Nishijima, Fukuoka News Center)

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