TOKYO — Japan’s Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology may need lessons in morals, honesty, and the political funding laws of Japan.
Hakubun Shimomura, who lobbied hard to become the education minister in 2012 when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government took power, is distinguishing himself as an example of how not to behave in office; he is the quintessential hanmen kyoshi—which is Japanese for “someone who teaches by their bad example.”
Even without an education in morality, most Japanese people know that it’s wrong to take money from the yakuza, accept dodgy campaign contributions, or get caught covering them up. Apparently, this is a lesson that Shimomura has been slow to learn.
The scandal began last month when the weekly news magazine Shukan Bunshun reported that Shimomura had received illegal political funds, including some from an individual connected to Japan’s largest mafia group, the Yamaguchi-gumi. He quickly denied almost all of the allegations, only admitting to a 48,000-yen donation (about $400) from a man linked to the Japanese mafia. He said it had been returned to the donor in January, and there was no problem. (The amounts in these cases are small, but considered to be the proveable tip of the proverbial iceberg.)
Since then, Shimomura's story has changed several times and even among members of his Liberal Democratic Party and the conservative press there are those saying, “Perhaps it’s time for Minister Shimomura to step down. His actions require clarification.” The front page of Japan’s liberal daily, Nikkan Gendai, was less subtle: “Shimomura: LIAR.”
If Shimomura is fired or allowed to resign, he will be the fourth Abe-appointed minister to do so under the cloud of political scandal in the last six months.
Shimomura, a six-term Lower House lawmaker, has long been a key member of the Abe Cabinet and a close friend of the prime minister, spearheading the revival of “moral education” in the school system. It is a revival which some critics fear is a pretext for restoring the wartime mentality, and once again making Shinto the state religion. It is something that he has publicly denied, saying, “Sections of the media have an allergy to moral education…they are sending out the wrong image that we are trying to reinstate the prewar education system.”
According to Shimomura’s memoirs he suffered financial hardship from the time he was 9 years old, after his father died and young Shimomura struggled to complete his education. He was industrious and opened a cram school (juku) while attending prestigious Waseda University. Cram schools are a huge business in Japan, known for its juken jigoku—entrance exam hells—because getting into the right school can determine the future success of a student.
The Japanese university system is designed so that entering the good schools is extremely difficult but graduating is almost assured. When looking for a job, most companies pay little attention to the grade-point average of the student but focus rather what is the name and ranking of their university.
The result has been to create a two-tiered school system, one for general education, and one for getting into the right university. The cram and prep schools are enormously profitable. And it is not surprising that many of Shimomura’s supporters are, as he once was, cram school operators.
Shukan Bunshun and other media have reported that regional support groups acting on Shimomura’s behalf had not been registered as political organizations and therefore had improperly collected funds for his benefit. Moreover, they held regular gatherings with Shimomura present. Almost all of the regional support groups were consortiums of private school and cram school business owners.
The Political Funds Control Law stipulates that any group that supports a politician or puts up a political candidate must register as a political group and submit reports on its income and expenditure of political funds.
When Shimomura appeared before the Lower House Budget Committee on February 26, he said he had never received donations from the regional groups, never received money for “taxi fare” or “travel expenses.” He also described the political groups as voluntary organizations set up by friends in the education industry. “There is no legal issue. If required, I’ll give further explanations,” Shimomura told reporters after the budget committee hearing.
At first, Shimomura said he planned to protest the magazine’s report and also denied receiving a 100,000 yen (now about $830) donation in 2009 from a yakuza associate and former cram school operator, Masahiro Toyokawa.
Yes, cram schools may seem like an odd business for the yakuza to enter, but “education”-related scams have always been big earners for the groups, including “English conversation schools.”
Police sources told The Daily Beast that Toyokawa is a longtime associate of Japan’s largest organized crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi—specifically the Kodo-kai faction—and that Toyokawa and Shimomura had known each other for several years. They believe that Toyokawa may still be running cram schools from behind the scenes.
Toyokawa allegedly also loaned roughly $6 million to a chain of sexual massage parlors under the management of the yakuza. Toyokawa was a central figure in creating the Chubu Hakuyukai, one of the political groups believed to be collecting funds for Shimomura. Local police sources told The Daily Beast, “Toyokawa is an influential figure in the private school business here and a known associate of organized crime. He and Shimomura have certainly met and they have been spotted attending events together in the region, but the extent of their friendship remains unknown to us.”
To date, Shimomura has admitted that his secretary had sent out emails urging support groups not to speak to reporters about allegations that he had misused political funds. He has also admitted receiving the 100,000-yen donation from Toyokawa, reversing previous denials. He has since returned the money.
On Thursday, Shukan Bunshun published an interview with a former executive member of one regional group saying that she had handed Shimomura 100,000 yen in cash for a lecture, and that the money had come from yakuza associate Toyokawa. Shimomura denied it under questioning in the Diet. The 60-year-old woman later spoke to the press on the same day, showing evidence to back up her claims.
While the jury is out on how Japan’s “moral education” is working, it’s hard to imagine that it condones taking money from criminals or lying while in public office. Since October 1, 2011, it is also illegal to accept money of any kind from “anti-social forces”—which include yakuza and associates.