Former Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Isshu Sugawara has submitted his resignation as a Diet member to the House of Representatives. The move came amid the prospect that Sugawara will be subject to a summary indictment for allegedly making donations to voters in his constituency, which are prohibited under the Public Offices Election Act.
Sugawara has admitted to sending flowers to funerals, as well as having his secretary take monetary gifts to funeral services. Furthermore, suspicions have also emerged that he handed over several hundred thousand yen (about several thousand dollars) to hosts of events that were held within the constituency.
The most basic rule for politicians is that they must not give money and other gifts to voters.
If convicted, Sugawara will lose his right to hold office and his qualification as a lawmaker. The former trade minister's resignation was handed in after he had been driven into a corner, and we must say that it came too late.
Last year, the special investigative unit of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office shelved the prosecution of Sugawara after judging that the flowers and condolence money gifts were not of a malicious nature that warranted criminal charges.
Following this, a committee for the inquest of prosecution consisting of citizens decided that he should be indicted. In reinvestigations, the special investigate unit uncovered the suspicion that Sugawara distributed cash at events, and shifted their course to a summary indictment. Doubts remain over whether maximum efforts were conducted during the initial probe.
The outgoing legislator has only issued an apology without holding a press conference. In the comment, he stated that he will refrain from making a direct explanation to the Japanese public on the grounds that punishment has yet to be handed down by prosecutors and that we are currently amid the coronavirus pandemic.
However, a situation where Sugawara walks away without fulfilling his accountability to provide an explanation to the public cannot be tolerated.
During the past half year, four Diet members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have resigned in connection with the issue of money in politics.
All the resignations involved former ministers during the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and legislators who had deep connections with the former Cabinet. The recent developments may be a result of complacency in the long-running administration.
Sugawara is a close aide of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and also received his support upon his appointment as trade minister. Suga's political stance is also in question, and the LDP shoulders great responsibility.
There have been separate cases in the past where Sugawara was reported to have allegedly sent crabs, melons and other items to voters. However, the LDP did not launch a probe, and he was appointed as the chief director of the House of Representatives Committee on Health, Labor and Welfare after his indictment was suspended.
Regarding the issue of money in politics, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said that matters have been "significantly cleaned up." He also made a statement to the effect that elections require money and this is not only the responsibility of politicians.
Such awareness invites much skepticism. If this kind of stance within the LDP sees no improvement, distrust of politics in Japan will only deepen further.