Shinzo Abe’s rivals warn against political pardons to mark Japanese Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement

Julian Ryall

A senior opposition politician in Japan has warned the government against granting pardons to political allies to mark the upcoming enthronement of Emperor Naruhito, claiming such action would be an abuse of power.

The government reportedly has a list of 600,000 people found guilty of white-collar or relatively minor crimes who will have their criminal records expunged or sentences commuted to commemorate the new emperor’s enthronement on October 22.

The pardons would be the first since 1993, when 2.5 million people had their records revised to mark the wedding of then-crown prince Naruhito to Princess Masako. Similar amnesties have been issued on 11 occasions since the end of World War II, including 10 million pardons in 1989 when then-emperor Hirohito died.

Japanese emperor’s enthronement draws royals, leaders from 170 countries

Such amnesties have previously been criticised as a method for governments to absolve political allies convicted of offences linked to electoral fraud and bureaucrats who broke the law. The cabinet’s exclusive authority to decide who receives a pardon – with no independent oversight or public transparency – has also been criticised.

Yukihisa Fujita, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party in the Upper House, warned Prime Minister Shinzo Abe against using the enthronement to excuse cases of wrongdoing on political grounds.

“I’m going to be extremely unhappy if that happens,” Fujita said. “The government should only be granting pardons in cases that are clearly not politically motivated and they should not be covering up pardons that are issued. And they definitely should not be doing it in the name of the emperor.”

Fujita cited the example of Nobuhisa Sagawa, the former head of the National Tax Agency and a key figure in the so-called Moritomo scandal, which last year threatened to undermine Abe’s leadership.

It was alleged Abe and his wife, Akie, used their influence to help the deeply conservative educational group Moritomo Gakuen purchase land in Osaka for a fraction of its 956 million yen (US$8.9 million) market value.

Japan's Emperor Naruhito, who will be enthroned on October 22. Photo: AFP

The Abes denied involvement and prosecutors eventually decided against pressing criminal charges, even though Sagawa admitted he approved finance ministry bureaucrats falsifying documents to allow the sale to proceed. The tax chief returned a year’s pay and resigned from the agency – an administrative punishment rather than a criminal punishment that, if rescinded, would permit him to return to the bureaucracy with a clean record.

Other potential beneficiaries include seven bureaucrats at the education ministry, including Kihei Maekawa, the administrative vice-minister, who illegally helped arrange 37 lucrative positions for ministry officials after their retirement. Known as amakudari (“descent from heaven”), the practice is banned as it encourages collusion between outside organisations and the ministry through former officials’ ties.

If a pardon is clearly a political decision, then I think that will be too much for the public to bear.

Professor Pema Gyalpo

Regarding a possible pardon that would expunge Sagawa’s punishment from the record, Fujita asked: “That case came to light because of a whistle-blower in the ministry, but what message are we sending if those behind this case are pardoned and whistle-blowers are punished for their actions?

“Two bureaucrats at the finance ministry took their own lives over the Moritomo case and another tried to kill herself. We need to make sure wrongdoing is punished and these cases cannot be covered up,” Fujita said. “It is unthinkable for someone like this to be pardoned in the name of the emperor.”

Pema Gyalpo, a professor of law at Yokohama University, had similar concerns.

“Giving mercy by the government in this way has been common for many decades, although it is true it has been criticised in the past for favouring people whose cases were politically motivated,” he said.

A proposed pardon for former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka – who was arrested, tried and found guilty of bribery in the 1976 Lockheed scandal – met with such opposition it was abandoned.

“The government has to make its decisions based on how serious individual cases are,” Gyalpo said. “And yes, I do expect the opposition to make these pardons an issue if they are issued in serious cases.

“If a pardon is clearly a political decision, then I think that will be too much for the public to bear.”

Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako. Photo: Kyodo

Even the centrist Mainichi newspaper declared in a May editorial it was “time to end criminal amnesties” on special occasions linked to the imperial family. The tradition allows the administrative branch of the government to undermine the judiciary, which is meant to be completely independent of political influence, the paper said.

“It is only natural the public suspects pardoning a massive number of those convicted of violating the Public Offices Election Act reflects political considerations,” it said. “As growing importance is being attached to extending relief to victims in crimes, it is contradictory to lessen the punishment of perpetrators regardless of their victims’ will.”

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