Game of Clones: Japanese Politics as Great Power Puppet Plays

Japan is now four months into a massive political scandal.

Although it had been reported in a communist newspaper and in other minor outlets since November of 2022, in December of 2023 the mainstream media here blew up with news that members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had been getting kickbacks from the sales of tickets to supporter gatherings and other political schmoozing events. Much of this money went unreported. By law, cash received from ticket sales, as with all such income, must be catalogued, and taxes must be paid. But as anyone from any other country that has politicians could tell you, that is of course not what the LDP pols did. Many of them siphoned off some of the cash and used it for getting votes and God knows what else. Each week brings new revelations of dirty dealings and sordid cover-ups in Tokyo.

Pretty rich behavior for a political class that last year started cracking down on unreported income for the hoi polloi. A new invoice law came into effect in 2023 requiring us little people to create invoices and pay sales tax for even the most piddling of interpersonal cash transactions. The politicians seem to have had no intention of following the rules they impose on the rest of us, however. Many of them have used their clout and standing for quick personal enrichment while we have spent hours filling out additional tax paperwork. And so, we in Japan have been rather enjoying watching the criminals who run the country sweat and squirm under the glare of media scrutiny. Recently, I watched late-night NHK with no small degree of Schadenfreude as Takagi Tsuyoshi, member of the House of Representatives and former head of the LDP’s Committee on the Diet (Parliament), mopped his brow taking hard questions from opposition politicians. They were grilling him, and rightly so, about the more than ten million yen (some 67,000 US dollars) in unreported slush money he had received from the kickback scheme.

Takagi is far from the worst offender. Hagiuda Koichi, a big-name politician and former head of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, took at least twenty-seven million yen (nearly $180,000 US).

Matsuno Hirokazu, who once had the prime ministership in his sights as the powerful Chief Cabinet Secretary (kanbo chokan) under current prime minister Kishida Fumio, like Takagi took more than ten million yen. Matsuno fell much harder than either Takagi or Hagiuda. He was stripped of his position and roasted almost daily in the Diet and in the media for his inane non-answers to questions about how much he took and when he took it.

Nishimura Yasutoshi, who was once the very powerful Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, admits to having taken one million yen (some 6,500 US dollars) in under-the-table money, but is suspected of having gotten much more. Seko Hiroshige, who was also once Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, failed to report at least eight million yen (more than 55,000 US dollars) in slush money.

Ikeda Yoshitaka, House of Representatives member and former State Minister for the influential Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, may have taken forty-eight million yen (around 319,000 US dollars). Ono Yasutada, former Chairman of the House of Councilors Committee on the Cabinet, is suspected of having taken upwards of fifty million yen (more than 330,000 dollars). In January of 2024, Ono was charged by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office with violating the Political Funding Regulation Law (Seiji Shikin Kisei Ho). In the same month, Ikeda was arrested, along with a political secretary, for conspiring to break the same law, and was charged with such. More arrests may follow for others who have embezzled cash.

The scandal has produced the usual run of buffoonish sideshows. Tanaka Makiko, who was once Minister for Foreign Affairs and who has led a charmed political life as the daughter of postwar prime minister Tanaka Kakuei, came out of retirement to chastise the bumbling LDP politicians for their carelessness with money. This was ironic in the extreme. Tanaka Kakuei left the prime ministership in 1974 amid scandal, and then was hit headlong with a much bigger uproar, over bribes from Lockheed, two years later. Tanaka Kakuei’s political career ended in crookedness, and began in it, too. Tanaka made his way in politics through the support of the classic populist-kickback constituents group, the Niigata-based Etsuzankai. Tanaka got his start running with the Tokyo big boys under Kishi Nobusuke, who was a bought-and-paid-for Washington lapdog. To make the farce even thicker, Tanaka Makiko served in the cabinet of Koizumi Jun’ichiro, who was arguably even more of a Washington toady than Kishi was.

There is more to the hypocrisy than just Tanaka Makiko’s lack of familial self-awareness. The way the LDP kickback scandal has been portrayed in the media should be of note to Americans who follow what is going on in Japan. The reason is that the current screaming match in the Diet conceals a much deeper truth about who really runs Japan, and why.

On the surface, the scandal of the hour is about political discord. Everyone is fighting everyone else. Tune in to just about any Japanese television station or pick up just about any newspaper, and you will learn that the people who apparently misappropriated tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in unreported funds belonged to this or that ha, or “political faction.” Takagi, Hagiuda, Ikeda, Seko, Nishimura, Matsuno, and Ono were all part of the “Abe-ha,” that is, the faction of politicians who cluster under the policy aegis of the late Abe Shinzo, Kishi Nobusuke’s grandson. While Abe was alive, his Abe-ha minions declared themselves (whether sincerely or not) to be loyal to his political positions. The official name for the pro-Abe group is the Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai, or Seiwakai for short, and its members are known to be among the most conservative in the Diet. The way the story is sold in the Japanese media—and the way Tanaka Makiko and other opportunistic pols are framing it—is that the legacy of Abe Shinzo is coming undone (or coming home to roost, depending on which side of the aisle you cheer for). One side versus the other in the rough-and-tumble world of Tokyo politicking.

Indeed, faction as the ugly backstory to the kickback scandal has come to overshadow even the misappropriation of funds itself. For instance, the media reports that the Shikokai, the faction led by and supporting former prime minister Aso Taro, also apparently failed to report “party ticket” income. (Aso was personally and ideologically very close to the late Abe Shinzo.)

Others who took shady political cash include Nikai Toshihiro, a House of Representatives member and lifelong politician (he first entered the Diet in 1975). Nikai is said to have taken a staggering five billion yen (some 33 million US dollars) for “political activity” over five years as LDP Secretary-General from 2016 to 2021. Nikai is the head of the Shisuikai, the faction which supports his political views (largely sympathetic to China). More factionalism.

Also on the China-faction front, Kadota Ryusho, a journalist colleague in Japan, reported in December of 2023 that Chinese nationals once crowded into events for the Kochikai, the storied (and elitist) faction which now rallies behind Prime Minister Kishida. In January 2024, Kishida announced that he was dissolving the Kochikai after sixty-seven years in operation. Factionalism eating its own.

Even Yamaguchi Natsuo, head of the Buddhist Soka Gakkai-backed Komeito party which bills itself as the “clean government” alternative to crooked Tokyo politics, has gotten caught in the scandal. In late 2023, Yamaguchi publicly agreed to lower reporting requirements for “party ticket” sales and other such income from 200,000 yen (about 1,300 dollars) to 50,000 yen (about 300 dollars). This is a strong indication that Komeito members had not been reporting slush money. There is a China-angle to the Komeito news, as well, as it is often whispered in Tokyo politics that the Komeito is soft on China. The Komeito votes with the LDP in a bloc on most issues, so the media focus on the Komeito is another way of saying that factionalism is what is driving the dysfunction of the Japanese Diet.

It is true that the scandals are partly about factions, about which politician belongs to which stable and how the various groups collude behind the scenes to frustrate open parliamentary debate. That is all readily apparent, and the extent to which factions act against the interests of voters cannot be discounted. At the same time, though, there is something very misleading about how the media covers the “party ticket” slush money brouhaha. The fractious factionalism that helps decide who gets how much of what kind of kickback and who gets appointed to which coveted position is camouflage for the almost complete one-dimensionality of the political world here. Nikai Toshihiro and Yamaguchi Natsuo are piffled about in the media as being tools of the Chinese, yes. And LDP members Arimura Haruko and Nagashima Akihisa are rather notoriously slavish to Washington. So there is a kind of factionalism to how the political class in Tokyo is said to interact with foreign powers.

But the truth is that there is little daylight between any of the factions, even the ones which appear to be serving the Chinese Communists and the ones which appear to be pro-American. The much more salient truth in all of this is that the LDP is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Deep State. It was born that way—as a vehicle for American interests in Japan. No pro-China group, or pro-any-other-country-group, and certainly no faction centered around the fortunes of this or that LDP politician, comes remotely close to challenging the one faction that determines every major policy in Japan: namely, the faction which also controls Washington, DC. The entire postwar, in which unelected American bureaucrats run Tokyo, is structured around the docility of the LDP, its thralldom to Potomac logic and worldview.

Prime Minister Kishida, possibly the most LDP-like LDP politician in history, has consistently prioritized the interests of Washington, DC, over the people of Japan. This may explain why Kishida is hated by right-wingers. It certainly explains why I hold him in contempt. He is not the prime minister of Japan—he is Washington’s satrap, Vidkun Quisling in spectacles and a necktie. Many other conservatives here are growing angrier by the week over the extent to which politics-as-usual in the Tokyo political neighborhood of Nagatacho serves the American uniparty and the Japan handlers in the permanent government, over and against the people whose “blood taxes” (ketsuzei) the Japanese government sucks up and uses to buy big-ticket military hardware from American defense contractors. Or sends off to prop up Washington’s losing war of attrition in its other client state of Ukraine.

Ukraine is the perfect lens through which to view Japanese politics, to reveal how tightly the LDP’s lips are affixed to Washington’s behind. In February of 2024, Prime Minister Kishida and his cabinet hosted a “Japan-Ukraine Conference for Promotion of Economic Growth and Reconstruction,” which is a polite way of saying “an invitation to the rebuild-Ukraine pork barrel buffet.” The month before, in early January, Kishida’s foreign minister, Kamikawa Yoko, traveled to Ukraine, where she took the usual melodramatic tour of a bomb shelter and promised to send millions of dollars of Japanese tax money to NATO (of which Japan is not a member, but wants to be). Outside observers could be forgiven for thinking that Kamikawa, and Kishida, and the rest of the LDP were working for the Ukrainian government, and not for an archipelago off the eastern coast of Asia. Japan has already provided Ukraine with more than 1.2 trillion yen (nearly eight billion US dollars) since hostilities with Russia began in February of 2022. At the February 19 Ukraine-pork smorgasbord, Prime Minister Kishida promised the grifters visiting from Kiev that he would send billions of dollars more. There is no country on earth, not even Ukraine itself, that has been more desperate to please Washington since February of 2022 than Japan. And it has been that way since the second half of August, 1945. The LDP serves Washington. And no one else.

What has Japan’s client-state status done for the Japanese people? Ask the ones living in the Japan equivalent of Trump Country, the people about whom Tokyo politicians could not possibly care less. On January 1, 2024, a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the Noto peninsula, part of Ishikawa Prefecture on the Japan Sea-side of the main island of Honshu. As of this writing, electricity still has not been restored to much of the affected area. Municipal water is also out, as the earthquake buckled the ground and caused massive landslides and structural collapses, resulting in untold damage to water pipes and other infrastructure. People were crushed when their homes fell in on top of them in the violent shaking. There has been no Conference for Promotion of Economic Growth and Reconstruction in Noto. But then again, why would there be? Washington hasn’t ordered its eunuchs in Nagatacho to do such a thing yet, and so there the people of Ishikawa sit, forgotten. Money that could go to help rebuild Japan is sent off to rebuild Ukraine.

The abandoned people of the Noto Peninsula are resilient, and are not begging anyone for sympathy. The grit of the people living in the rough Japanese equivalent of East Palestine, Ohio, is inspiring. Those farmers and fishermen are the salt of the earth. On February 28, there was a concert in Suzu, a small city in Ishikawa Prefecture, at one of the elementary schools still being used as a shelter for people left homeless by the New Year’s Day disaster. Fifteen elementary school students stood in the unheated gym of their school and sang a beautiful song of hope for the people assembled on makeshift seats before them. The children’s breath was visible in the cold air as they sang. The audience members, many of them elderly and nearly all of them destitute, shed silent tears. The children’s song helped them, they said after the concert ended. They wanted to keep moving ahead, to hold out for a better tomorrow.

Nobody from the Kishida cabinet was there, of course. They have very important work to do evading taxes for slush payments and figuring out how to get more taxpayer money to Kiev.

On the other side of Honshu from Ishikawa, in the dimly-lit back halls of a Tokyo government controlled by the United States, Japanese leaders schemed how to line the pockets of politicians in Ukraine, arguably the most corrupt regime on earth. The only benefit for Japan in throwing tax yen into the black hole of an unwinnable war started by Washington is that it wins “sontaku” (kiss-up) points for Kishida, who apparently sees it as his life mission to please Joe Biden.

Tokyo’s prejudices are Washington’s, too. Even the most irrational ones. In late February, my colleague Kenji Yoshida and I interviewed Suzuki Muneo, a member of the House of Councilors who was lambasted by the media and left his former political party, the Nippon Ishin-no-Kai, over a visit to Russia in October of 2023. We spoke to Suzuki for more than an hour, and learned much about why he decided to visit the country which Washington, and its puppets in Japanese politics and in the Japanese media, portrays as the second coming of the Third Reich. Suzuki was passionate about how important it was for the people in his home district, on the northern island of Hokkaido, to maintain dialogue with Moscow. There are fishing rights at stake for Hokkaido fishermen, for instance. People in Hokkaido want to visit the graves of their ancestors in territory which the Soviet Union took at the end of World War II and which Russia continues to occupy. Russia is an important source of energy, Suzuki explained. And Russia has a point about Minsk II, he insisted. In any event, one must speak with one’s adversaries, Suzuki argued. In a time of war, especially, one must reach out to the other side. [The Postil has published this interview]

For his trouble, Suzuki was pilloried in the press. He was called a “traitor” (kokuzoku). He has long been maligned as a “Russian lackey” (Roshia no daibensha) by the Japanese media, and his October, 2023 visit to Russia helped confirm that there is still no love lost between the Hokkaido politician and the press corps. Yoshida and I wanted to bring some balance to the coverage of Suzuki. We tried running our interview with a so-called “conservative” outlet in Japan. The editor there slammed the virtual door in our face, saying that there was no need to listen to anything any Russian had to say, and, by extension, no need to listen to Suzuki Muneo. That is correct. The “conservatives” here are not just against Putin. They’re against all Russians. Sound familiar? As you might have guessed, the same “conservative” outlet in Japan pushes the pro-Ukraine line even more shamelessly than does the Pentagon.

Is Suzuki Muneo a traitor, a running dog of Russian imperialism? After talking to Suzuki, it struck Yoshida and me that, of all the politicians in the Diet, the one routinely insulted as a foreign dupe was the one most patriotically trying to help Japanese people outside of the political class. If only there was a Suzuki Muneo for the Noto Peninsula, then maybe there would be some accountability and people there wouldn’t be freezing, hungry, and crying. If only there had been more politicians like Suzuki these past eighty years while Washington has been running the show here. Suzuki Muneo went to prison some two decades ago when he wouldn’t kowtow to the neo-liberal Washington tool of the hour, then-prime minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro. Or at least, that’s how many see it. Suzuki also vaguely hints that refusing to bend the knee to Koizumi was what got him, Suzuki, sent up the river for a spell. But there is some truth to this interpretation, I believe. Who else in the Koizumi years was willing to go as far as Suzuki to stop Japan’s being Washington’s plaything?

The irony is thick, and depressing. Suzuki Muneo, a patriot to my mind, is said to be a cat’s paw of Putin. People inside the LDP say this. But it’s the LDP, with its fake factionalism and its shameless truckling to Washington—as a matter of policy, as a matter of existence from day one—that is the real sock puppet.

It’s a game of clones, this political business in Tokyo. The politicians here in Japan appear to be riven by faction, battling one another tooth and nail in the Diet. But the entire thing is a farce. Those who pretend to be warring in the parliament are, in fact, players in a sad puppet play, Japanese marionettes dancing around on Yankee strings.

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan