Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama apologizes for fake campaign donation scandal

By Blaine Harden
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

TOKYO -- For politicians in Japan, the road to scandal usually winds through construction companies, defense contractors or a mistress. For newly elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, the road leads to his mother, an octogenarian heiress.

Prosecutors have traced about $10.4 million that Yasuko Hatoyama, 87, gave to her son over a five-year period ending in 2008, sources in the investigation have told major news outlets in Japan. Some of that money was reportedly funneled into fake campaign donations, listed as coming from dead people or from people who never contributed.

Hatoyama apologized Monday in parliament for the donations scandal, but suggested that he will remain prime minister unless he is prosecuted.

"In light of the decision to be made by law enforcement authorities, I would like to fulfill my duties," he said. "If there were any contributions by my mother, I will take appropriate action according to the law."

The investigation is hurting Hatoyama's credibility with the public, although so far it has found no evidence showing his direct involvement in illegal activity. Hatoyama's mother might soon be questioned by prosecutors, but she has not been named as a suspect.

In a weekend poll, three-quarters of respondents said they were dissatisfied with Hatoyama's vague explanations for the donations. Last week, when reporters asked him about money from mother, he said that he was "wondering what was going on without me knowing about it" and that he was "very surprised by it all."

Hatoyama became prime minister in September, after his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won a historic landslide in an election that halted 54 years of near-continuous dominance by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The LDP had become deeply unpopular, in part because of a long history of campaign-finance scandals among party elders. Hatoyama promised that his party would break up the cozy triangle of back-scratching and payoffs among bureaucrats, politicians and big business.

That promise continues to resonate with the public, and approval ratings for Hatoyama's government remain well above 60 percent. But a steady drip of leaks from the Tokyo prosecutor's office about fundraising improprieties -- allegedly involving Hatoyama family money -- is beginning to push up his disapproval ratings, which jumped three percentage points in the past month, to 25 percent.

Hatoyama, 62, a Stanford-trained engineer and grandson of a prime minister, comes from an immensely wealthy and influential family. He and his brother, also a politician, grew up in a European-style family palace in Tokyo and are believed to have assets of at least $100 million.

Their mother, Yasuko, is the eldest daughter of the founder of Bridgestone Corp., the world's largest tire manufacturer.

Questions about family money in fundraising have dogged Hatoyama since early summer when, as a candidate for prime minister, he admitted that a fundraising aide had reported fake campaign donations using the names of dead people and others. That aide has resigned and appears likely to be prosecuted.

In a public show of contrition for that scandal, Hatoyama apologized in June and said he was correcting campaign reports as he became aware of improprieties.

Since then, the prosecution's investigation has broadened as the amount of allegedly fake donations has jumped from $250,000 to about $4 million. According to leaks from the investigation, which have appeared almost daily in the past week in Japan's leading newspapers, about a third of the fake donations came from Hatoyama's mother. Most of the rest of the falsified donations have been traced back to the Hatoyama family's asset-management company.

As new allegations have become public, Hatoyama has frequently declined to comment. Once the official inquiry is complete, he told parliament Monday, he will give the public a full explanation.

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