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Big in Japan: The Chicago Way

Although the distance between Soldier Field and the Tokyo Dome is almost 8,000 miles, and residents here prefer sashimi and yakitori to Vienna beef and Chicago-style pizza, there is a familiar theme that connects the two metropolitan areas: corruption. Beachwood readers are familiar with the monopoly the Daley family has had on Chicago politics - and political scandals - over the past 60 years. In Tokyo, city scandals are also rampant, but the nature of the Tokyo scandal is slightly different. Call it the Tokyo Way.

Chicago underwent major political and industrial changes in the early 20th century and transformed itself into modern metropolis. Politicians aligned themselves ethnically, and eventually Daley the First emerged out of Bridgeport as the political top-dog. He was no stranger to scandal.

Japan underwent a dramatic transformation at the end of the 19th century. Called the Meiji Restoration, it was during this time when the last of the Samurai surrendered their power back to the emperor (famously and inaccurately reenacted in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai). This period also was the start of the movement of Japanese society from feudalism to imperialism and began the modern Japanese capitalist economic push. After World War II, power shifted from an imperial government to political organizations. Public government scandal followed shortly thereafter.

In Chicago, city government-related scandals are not uncommon. For years, various charges have swirled around Richard M. Daley, yet he has seemed to remain politically invulnerable. Although Daley has never been taken out by a scandal, he remains - as his father was before him - the public figure most closely associated with city corruption.

Shintaro Ishihara is probably the closest thing to a Japanese equivalent of Daley. He is the current governor of Tokyo and has been involved in politics for 40 years. He has been a war correspondent, author, and actor. He is a member of Japan's most powerful political group, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Ishihara is fervently right-wing and nationalistic, stirring international controversy for his 1990 Playboy interview in which he claimed that the Rape of Nanking was fiction. He is considered by many as a racist. In 2007, Bloomberg's William Pesek compared him to French ultra-nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. His duties are similar to that of the mayor; however, unlike Daley and his father before him, Ishihara is not so publicly associated with corruption. He is more of a political celebrity with tolerated controversial views than the public face of scandal.

Ishihara, like Daley, has come dangerously close to real consequences for shady behavior. He recently had to apologize to the public for questionable decision-making after convincing the city in 2005 to put 100 billion yen of its money into a bank, Shinginko Tokyo, which subsequently incurred a cumulative loss of 101.6 billion yen by the end of March. "It's classic pork barrel stuff," the Asian business correspondnet of the Times of London wrote. Ishihara was questioned in an internal investigation and later apologized but - as often happens in Daley's Chicago - someone else was scapegoated.

Tokyo certainly has its share of corrupt officials, and plenty of illegal backroom scheming. Many scandals in Tokyo are related to construction contract bid-rigging and bribery. Tacit acceptance of scandal by other political officials and wrist-slapping from the court system does little to deter city corruption. And when scandal is exposed, punishment is rarely harsh. Last week, Michio Uchida, a former top official at the Japanese Highway Corporation was sentenced by the Tokyo High Court to 2-1/2-years in prison for instigating several rigged road construction bids. As is often the case in corruption convictions in Tokyo, the sentence was suspended. Officials convicted of corruption or embezzlement are often given suspended sentences and later re-hired to government posts under the condition that they become "temporary" one-year workers. Their contracts are usually renewed, and they are not always denied a pension.

Could Daley survive as a political entity out here? Anything is possible. It may be the case that Time magazine acted wisely in 2005 when they applied the term "imperial" to Daley's mayoral style.

He has the political chops for the job. More likely, after an inevitable scandal he would experience the fate of many "disgraced" Japanese politicians and bureaucrats. He would be publicly chided, fined a small amount of money (usually the equivalent to the amount of the bribe taken) given a suspended jail sentence and quietly hired back into politics in a lower post.

It's not pretty, but maybe it's a slight improvement over the Chicago Way.


Previously in Big in Japan:
* Not Fukudome
* The Yokohama Cubs.


Posted on July 8, 2008

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BOOKS - All About Poop.


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