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$41K toilet installed secretly in Japanese town mayor's office under scrutiny

The toilet installed in the mayor's office in Inagawa, Hyogo Prefecture, is seen on May 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Shohei Miyamoto)

INAGAWA, Hyogo -- By secretly installing a publicly-funded toilet in his office for his exclusive use, the mayor of this small western Japan town joined a string of local leaders said to have made their offices and government buildings their own; the pricey porcelain has come under scrutiny, too.

    In similar cases, one mayor was criticized for putting a glass-walled shower booth in his office, while another brought a home sauna to his local government building.

    About 25 kilometers northwest of JR Osaka Station, Inagawa is a Kansai region commuter town home to about 30,000 residents, and is known for its forests and bucolic landscapes. The toilet for 74-year-old mayor Choji Fukuda's exclusive use, located in his office on the second floor of the municipal government's main building, became public knowledge two years ago.

    Inagawa Mayor Choji Fukuda (Mainichi)

    Inagawa municipal assemblywoman Sumie Fukui questioned the mayor about the toilet during a session in June 2019, asking, "Isn't that facility unnecessary?" The municipal government had installed the toilet equipped with a warm-water cleansing spray function in June 2017 for 4,516,560 yen (about $41,000) in public money.

    However, neither the town budget nor financial statements mention the toilet, and the installation cost had been lumped in under "facility maintenance expenses," a some 62.54 million-yen (about $570,000) budget line. After hearing from a resident about the toilet's installation, Fukui said, "How dare you build it without notifying assembly members? Residents are angry, too."

    A municipal government official responded, "We installed the toilet from the perspective of crisis management," citing incidents such as the July 2013 arson case at the Takarazuka Municipal Government building in the same prefecture, and dealing with natural disasters. However, while other big-ticket items under the facility maintenance budget were explained to the town assembly, the toilet was not. The official said, "To be concise and clear, we could not explain everything (including the installation of the toilet)."

    The Inagawa Municipal Government's main building is seen in Inagawa, Hyogo Prefecture, on May 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Shohei Miyamoto)

    Inagawa Deputy Mayor Osamu Miyawaki also defended the private toilet, saying that Mayor Fukuda "was stuck in the town hall for four days" during the torrential rain disaster that struck western Japan in July 2018, leaving one dead and two seriously injured in the town. Miyawaki emphasized, "The toilet is necessary for crisis management. We do not recognize it as a luxury, as they (toilets) are also installed in neighboring cities."

    As Miyawaki said, seven municipalities in Hyogo Prefecture's Hanshin area, excluding the town of Inagawa, have toilets for mayors' exclusive use in their offices or other locations. However, the mayoral toilet in the city of Takarazuka has been in use since 1980, when the present government building opened, meaning that the toilet's installation had nothing to do with the 2013 arson incident. The city of Asago and the town of Inami, which both have a similar population to Inagawa, do not have toilets for their mayors' exclusive use.

    Tatsushi Mayama, a professor of public administration at Doshisha University, explained, "The mindset that local government heads ordinarily retain dedicated facilities might have been strong a long time ago, but the view that luxuries are unnecessary in government buildings has been growing in recent years." Introducing a private washroom because other governments have them is "an unreasonable excuse," Mayama declared. "It is a failure as a modern local government."

    The Inagawa Municipal Government subsidizes medical fees for single-parent families, at an annual cost of some 4.9 million yen (around $45,000) -- roughly the same as the new toilet. Mayama added, "I suppose members of single-mother homes would sigh glumly. Neglecting to explain things on the grounds that they are of little consequence is out of touch with the feelings of the town residents."

    Ikeda Mayor Hiroki Tomita expresses his intention to resign at a news conference on April 26, 2021, in Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

    Examples in other local governments include the installation in Tokyo of a toilet in the deputy governor's office in 2007, which the metropolitan assembly saw as a problem. Conversely, former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto moved his office to a space with no private washroom. The current Osaka mayor also uses shared toilets, and a municipal government official said, "It's not inconvenient in the least."

    Meanwhile, in recent years there have seen some problematic cases of local government heads renovating their offices. The Ichikawa Municipal Assembly in Chiba Prefecture passed a resolution in March to demand Mayor Hirotami Murakoshi remove the glass-walled shower booth installed in his office. In April in the city of Ikeda in Osaka Prefecture, 44-year-old Mayor Hiroki Tomita expressed his intention to resign, after a series of problems including putting a home sauna into the municipal government building came to light.

    Inagawa Mayor Fukuda is in his third term. In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun at his office, Fukuda insisted, "It's wrong to treat this as equivalent to issues in Ichikawa and Ikeda. It (the toilet) was installed four years ago, and we are not being criticized by residents, so there is consensus."

    Fukuda explained how and why the dedicated toilet was introduced: "As the government building is old, the original washstand needed to be updated. But as the washstand alone was unnecessary, I asked to add the toilet." He added, "There are times when I stay overnight to respond to disasters. But I never said I wanted a shower or a nap room," and continued, "I don't think mayors usually use the same toilet as general visitors." Though he had used shared toilets near his office before installing his own, he explained, "Municipal workers paying mind to me sometimes left when I came in."

    This March 1, 2021 photo shows the shower room installed in the mayor's office in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of the Ichikawa Municipal Government)

    As this reporter related the mayor's opinions to professor Mayama, he commented, "The private toilet can be summed up in a word: unnecessary. I cannot find a relation between the toilet in the mayor's office and crisis management." Citing examples such as the sauna in Ikeda, Mayama pointed out, "Local government heads using government buildings for private purposes, and not being able to draw a line between private and public is precisely the problem at hand."

    With flowers arranged and the toilet bowl and mirror shining, the Inagawa mayor's washroom was kept meticulously clean. Fifteen meters from it, the same old toilets shared by visitors and employees remain. An 83-year-old homemaker who has lived in the town for many years commented, "I didn't know there was a toilet for the mayor's exclusive use. I don't think it's necessary. Is there anything wrong with everyone using the same toilets?"

    (Japanese original by Shohei Miyamoto, Kobe Bureau)

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