Loopholes keep voters in the dark in Japan

By Yo Noguchi

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Japan will hold a general election this fall in the midst of persistent controversy over politics and money.  But, as in past elections, it’s unlikely to be resolved as the government and politicians in question, including former ministers, are reluctant to talk about issues such as opaque money that may have influenced policy making.

As a Japanese newspaper reporter, I have been in charge of reporting on political money and its scandals for many years. During my year-long stay in the United States as a visiting scholar with the Investigative Reporting Workshop from 2018-2019, I was able to keep a close eye on the 2018 midterm elections as well as how the U.S. news media were covering campaign finance.

I kept my eyes on news articles about the election and campaign finance.That’s when I began to understand the major differences between the U.S. and Japan in the number and variety of news stories that used campaign finance databases to help the public understand where a candidate’s campaign contributions came from and how the funds were spent.

In the days leading up to Election Day, The New York Times reported: “Political spending in the election is expected to exceed $5 billion, making it the most costly midterm contest in history.” The story also noted that “Democratic candidates for the House had raised more money than their Republican competitors, by a margin of more than $300 million.”

The story surprised me because, in Japan, we seldom see information before an election detailing the total amount of money candidates or parties have raised and spent, which party is raising the most or how much an election costs candidates. It’s often a year after the election when that information becomes available.

The Washington Post reported contributions from pro- and anti-gun control organizations in a Nov. 4, 2018, story as well as the contributions of tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple. In Japan, contributions from specific organizations and corporations are not usually made public, especially just before an election. I was surprised to see it in the U.S.media coverage.

I often read stories in the U.S. news media that referred to “dark money.” The campaign finance watchdog group OpenSecrets, a merger of the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute for Money and Politics, described dark money as “political spending meant to influence the decision of a voter, where the donor is not disclosed and the source of the money is unknown.”

That seemed to symbolize the deep concern about money influencing politics in the U.S.

Who contributes the most to lawmakers? How do lawmakers use campaign finance money and who are the recipients? Did some candidates spend more than others and was the spending appropriate? Which lawmaker raised or spent the most money? Those are typical questions U.S. reporters ask. In Japan, we rarely see news articles that answer these questions.

Disclosure of this kind of information allows voters not only to assess lawmakers’ potential conflicts of interest, but also allows them to check contributions and spending, helping maintain the credibility of politics.

There have been some investigations about campaign finance systems of different countries, but it seems the deficiencies of the Japanese system have not come to light. I began to compare Japanese disclosure laws with those in the U.S. and found clear structural problems in the Japanese system that may threaten the nation’s democracy.

The two countries have different histories and cultures, but both elect representatives, either to Congress or Diet, so the importance of disclosure is the same.

The purpose of this study was to compare Japan and the U.S. on specific topics and to report the possible loss of democratic governance in Japan. I collected and analyzed:

  • The differences in the quality and quantity of news articles about campaign finance;
  • The differences in regulations, particularly the Japanese defects;
  • The differences in the structure of news media and non-profit organizations; and
  • What negative effects occurred because of the lack of Japanese regulations.

This study, conducted before, during and after the 2018 U.S, midterm elections, focused mainly on congressional or Diet elections, not presidential races or local-level elections, including state and prefecture.

Why Japanese voters don’t have access to information available to U.S. voters

Calculating the total amount of money candidates raise and spend in an election is easy enough: adding up each candidate’s total collections and expenditures. But to calculate exactly what a specific organization has contributed, we need data that explains each organization’s spending.

In the U.S., there are publicly available documents the news media can access, allowing them to write both about political “recipients” and “contributors.” Anyone can find the total income and expenditure of any lawmaker on the Federal Election Commission’s website. Using FEC data, as well as the Secretary of the Senate’s Office of Public Records, OpenSecrets provides a database that tracks contributions, spending and lobbying power of corporations or institutions on its website. The U.S. media use these databases to report on money in politics.

In Japan, there are some kinds of “recipient” documents, but they are not centralized, rather relegated to multiple agencies whose websites are not user-friendly. It’s extremely difficult even for the Japanese media to gather such data and thus to clarify the total income and spending of each lawmaker. Also, there is no database in Japan such as the one run by OpenSecrets, which allows anyone to know how much corporations or industries are contributing. Japanese voters and media can check contributions only by looking for the money on “recipient” data. Members of the Diet must report salaries, assets and other sources of income, but that requirement is not directly related to political activity.

In Japan, such data is not readily available and there is little transparency in how campaign contributions may be influencing political actions. That often means that the Japanese media and non-profit organizations are not as eager to report on money in politics.

Five loopholes in the Japanese system

Because there are no regulations for lobbying and no database of contributors, the Japanese media and public have to rely only on the data provided by recipients, that is lawmakers. I have identified what I consider to be major deficiencies in Japan’s campaign finance system as compared with the U.S. system.

1. No need to compile committees

In the U.S. and Japan, political money comes and goes among many political committees, but the regulations around that money are different. In the U.S., the Federal Election Commission requires the candidate’s principal campaign committee to compile and consolidate reports. “These consolidated reports must include: the candidate’s activity, reports submitted … by any other authorized committees.” All reports related to candidates during a certain election cycle must be compiled in one place.

In contrast, Japanese regulations neither require, compile nor consolidate campaign contribution reports. There are two different campaign finance regulations in Japan and therefore two different ways to report money. The Public Office Election Law regulates how to report campaign finance during “election period,” which is less than three weeks before an election. The Political Fund Control Law regulates times other than the “election period.”

Norihiko Narita, former president of Surugadai University, described these dual regulations as problematic in his report “Public Office Election Law and Political Fund Control Law.” (2009) “Dual regulations like this are peculiar to Japan,” he wrote.

Enforcement of the Political Fund Control Law is lax. Although a Japanese lawmaker or candidate always has multiple committees to raise and spend political money, where records are submitted varies depending on whether an organization acts in one prefecture or in two or more. Information must be submitted to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in Tokyo as well as to election administration commissions in specific prefectures. There is no requirement to compile and consolidate the reports, so they remain separate.

If reporters want to compile a specific lawmaker’s reports, they have to gather both kinds of reports, contacting both the Ministry and a prefectural commission. The media have to gather the documents and calculate the number themselves.

2. Far from digitalization

In the 2017-2018 U.S. election cycle, approximately 73% of reports filed with the FEC were done electronically, with the remaining 27% filed with paper copies. Federal law mandates that committees that exceed $50,000 in contributions or $50,000 in expenditures in a calendar year must file electronically. The FEC recommends that all committees file reports and statements electronically whenever possible; all data is publicly available on its website.

In contrast, Japanese regulations are far less stringent. While there are roughly two kinds of reports, one called “the reports during election period” required by Public Office Election Law, there is no requirement to report electronically. The ministry and many prefectural agencies make only a summary of the reports public on their websites; if journalists or the public want to see a copy of the full reports, they have to go to each agency.

The other mandated reports on income and expenditure of political funds required by Political Fund Control Law usually are not reported electronically. The ministry recommends, but does not require, that information be filed electronically. In 2017, only 1.8% of committees provided electronic reports, the ministry said.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and most of the prefectural election administration commissions make public all “reports during ordinary period” on their websites. However, because most reports are filed on paper, they are made public in PDF format that is difficult to edit and search. Moreover, many reports are handwritten. Even if reporters have gathered the reports, they must be digitized by hand, which takes a great deal of time. Some prefectural election administration commissions have not made reports available on their websites. The U.S. system makes it easy to copy, edit and search campaign finance documents.

3. Infrequent reports

The United States requires that campaign finance reports be filed four times per year. In addition, contributions of $1,000 or more must be reported within 48 hours. The FEC makes reports available on its website, which means the media can see any filed document within about three months after they are filed.

In Japan, however, the Political Fund Control Law requires a report only once a year. Although these reports show a candidate’s campaign finance information, it can take 11 to 23 months for reporters and the public to gain access to contribution details. The Public Office Election Law requires reports in an election period be filed 15 days after the election and the summary generally is made public on the website three or four months later. The delay in receiving and posting the reports means voters don’t get information about how the candidate financed the campaign until well after the election.

4. Short preservation period

The U.S. Federal Election Commission makes all reports permanently accessible and has records dating to the mid-1970s. Most of the files from the mid-1990s to the present are available through the FEC’s database.

In Japan, the ministry and many prefectural election administration commissions keep campaign finance documents only for three years, then dispose of them. That obviously makes it difficult to determine a history of who has contributed to a political campaign unless a reporter has kept files of previous records. House of Representatives elections come every four years while House of Councillors face election every six years.

5. Lenient standard of reporting

In Japan, an individual contribution of more than 50,000 yen (about $450) must be reported. However, there is what many consider to be a loophole in the law. Tickets for fundraising events are considered different from individual contributions, so attendees or corporations can pay up to 200,000 yen (about $1,800) and no report is required.

The income from the fundraising events accounts for a large percentage of candidates’ income. In 2016, the total amount of all candidates’ events income was 20.7 billion yen while contributions from individuals was 27.4 billion yen and contributions from corporations was 8.6 billion yen. However, because of the loophole, most of that money is invisible. For example, about 94 percent of contributors at cabinet ministers’ events were anonymous in 2016 according to a report by Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s most popular daily newspapers. Many candidates seem to make use of that regulation to attract donors without disclosing their contributions. For example, it often appeared that power companies paid less than the threshold for fundraising event tickets to influence lawmakers, including cabinet ministers, to allow a nuclear policy to be pushed.

In the U.S., candidates must report all individual contributions over $200, including tickets for campaign events. Tomoaki Iwai, a former professor at Nihon University, said that the contribution threshold of Japanese campaign finance regulations was actually meaningless because although there was an upper limit for each contribution and total amount in the period of a calendar year, candidates could raise the threshold by using multiple committees.

The problem of media

How the Japanese media cover political campaigns also contributes to the lack of information available to voters.

The matter of nonprofits

After mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that left more than 30 people dead in August 2019, CNBC immediately used information from the Center for Responsive Politics to report that the National Rifle Association had spent millions of dollars lobbying against expanding background checks for buying guns. The Center’s database contains information on campaign finance for members of Congress.

The National Institute on Money and Politics also has been running a database focused on state level campaign finance. The databases are available to anyone, and readers can find stories about campaign finance nearly every day. In addition, non-profit advocacy groups play a “watchdog” role by reviewing the database information and publicly raising issues of concern.

In Japan, there are few organizations that make similar databases available. Most of those organizations are unable to raise money and their management has often been questioned. Some media companies have been gathering campaign finance information from various sources around the country, but it can take a great deal of time as well as a lot of staff.

The self-regulation of media

The self regulation of the Japanese media is another problem. Even if there is a suspicion of inappropriate relationships or use of funds, Japanese media often give up writing about it when there is a possibility the story could prompt criticism or lawsuits.

In Japan, the typical news articles about campaign finance are limited to:

  • Yearly written campaign finance reports
  • Criminal matters
  • Scandals

Stories involving criminal matters and scandals get readers’ attention, but there are relatively few articles. Most stories report contribution trends and are normally written after the yearly disclosures. Japanese readers don’t see stories about campaign finance as frequently as the U.S. public.

“Even if it wouldn’t be a criminal case, the media may report the suspicious case more actively, thus it would become information for making a decision for the electorate,” said Professor Hiroshi Kamiwaki of Kobe Gakuin University.

It is common for the U.S. media to report what other news outlets are saying. CNN may quote The New York Times or Fox news. But Japanese media are reluctant to quote other media because they think it reflects poorly on them. That means the Japanese public may not get a full picture of events if they are reading or watching only one source.

What Japanese voters don’t know

I tried to compare the number of news articles about campaign finance in both countries using the common databases. The simple, unscientific comparison found that there was far greater coverage of political money in the United States than in Japan. During the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, there were 10,096 news stories about political money on The New York Times website. In Japan, during the October 2017 general election, Asahi Shimbun, one of the nation’s largest newspapers, had 271 stories devoted to campaign finance.

Japanese media rarely write about how campaign contributions can influence candidates or lawmakers, which means members of the public don’t have information that could affect their decision about which candidate to choose. Many Japanese voters don’t even know that such information exists. The voter turnout of the Japanese House of Councillors election in July 2019 was historically low at 48%, the second lowest number in history. In the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, 53% of the voting-age population voted, the highest midterm turnout in four decades. In comparison, the 2014 midterms had the lowest turnout.


The loopholes in Japanese regulations concerning campaign finance have been pointed out and criticized for many years, but there has been no resolution. U.S. regulations are not without loopholes, but because of the Federal Election Commission’s transparency voters can read about and discuss the issues publicly. Japanese voters don’t have the same opportunity.

“I think one of the remedial measures for Japan is to make the U.S.-like regulation, which puts all information into one place,” Tomoaki Iwai said. “The important point is information unification and its transparency.”

But it appears that Japanese lawmakers are purposely ignoring the issue of campaign finance regulations. Many voters have a tendency to regard almost all political money as dirty and lawmakers are afraid of the possibility that their contributions might decline. My time in the U.S. studying the issue led me to believe that the Japanese public needed to admit the necessity of political money and pursue how to improve transparency.

The Japanese reform of its campaign finance system began in 1975 after a bribery scandal involving Lockheed Corp. That reform came at the same time the United States was dealing with Watergate, which also triggered a reform movement. More than 40 years later, there are major gaps between the two systems.

Japan is often admired for its strong economy, but the same can’t be said for its regulations regarding campaign contributions. Without changes to the laws, as well as more transparency, Japanese voters will continue to make decisions about candidates without having all the information. That hurts Japanese democracy.

Yo Noguchi joined the Investigative Reporting Workshop as a Scholar-in- Residence at American University in August 2018 for one year. He has been a staff writer for The Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese daily newspaper, for 22 years. As a member of the investigative reporting team and economic news section in Tokyo, he has investigated stories relating to the financial scandals of politicians, government corruption and fraud in major companies.