Muneo Suzuki: On the Comeback Trail
Respect is a tough commodity
for a newsman to garner these days. The "crisis of confidence"
is what it is being called. Fabricated stories, imaginary
sources, and other bits of journalist fraud are making the
profession an easy target. Add to this the silly utterances
from junior reporters and antacid has become my new best friend.
For example, there was this morning.
junior reporter Junko made the request I smirked and pulled
on my lower lip. She then repeated it for clarity, perhaps
foolishly thinking I wasn't listening the first time: "The
Boss wants to know if you can handle a quick spot piece on
the Muneo Suzuki speech." She paused, looking a bit worried.
I straightened myself in my chair for dramatic
effect. "Listen, lady," I steamed, "just because
I've been hitting the pavement, penning award-winning
features, do you think for a second that I couldn't handle
a simple spot piece?" I rose to a hunch over the desk,
both fists on top.
She tried to open her mouth but I wouldn't
"No, you don't say anything," I continued.
"Here's what you do. You tell the Boss that spot piece
will be on his desk tomorrow morning."
"But can you do it sober?"
I slumped back to my seat.
It wasn't a joke, and neither
is his comeback.
Flashbulbs popped and cameras rolled for Muneo
Suzuki's speech entitled "Ethics In The Japanese Political
World" on April 1st at the Foreign Correspondents' Club
"I actually thought that I was being set
up for a joke," said the Diet member from Hokkaido
of the fact that he asked his secretary to confirm that he
was indeed invited to speak on April Fool's Day. He didn't
mention the irony within the speech's title.
Politics and ethics make for a sizeable contradiction
in Japan, and former ruling Liberal Democratic Party member
Muneo Suzuki ought to know. Once the ultimate symbol of greed
within Japan's political world, he is now set for a comeback.
His speech was light on political morality, but it made two
things clear: He has done nothing wrong, as he says, and Japan
hasn't seen the last of the man with the eternal smile.
summary of Muneo Suzuki's last two years reads like a manual
on political graft. In 2002, he was charged in two separate
cases of taking bribes from lumber and construction companies
in exchange for his influence in lucrative local contracts.
As well, that same year top aides of his were arrested for
participating in bid-rigging incidents for housing and power
plant construction projects. Today he is on trial at the Tokyo
District Court for the bribe charges.
Suzuki never confessed to any wrongdoing or
apologized for his actions. That is because, according to
him, he's innocent. (He maintained that one sum of money he
received was a congratulatory "gift" after an election
and not a bribe.)
"I would like to make it very clear,"
he said, "as a politician, I can declare unequivocally
I have not done anything wrong. And because of this stance,
I spent 437 days in detention."
Suzuki was held while he was being investigated
at the Tokyo Detention Center until it was determined by the
Tokyo District Court that he would not be able tamper with
any evidence in the cases against him. It was August of last
year that he posted a 50 million yen bail and was released.
Detention is not for the weary, he said. He
suffered physically and psychologically in his 6.6-square
meter confines of concrete-block walls and limited access
During the second month of the investigation,
the pain was the greatest. Seeing that he was suffering, the
prosecutors began torturing him with, as he said, "the
sweet whispering of the demon." They wanted to weaken
him further so they started to prod him: "Take off your
diet Member pin, give up being a politician." He lost
5 kilograms during the whole ordeal.
In spite of this experience, Suzuki is sharp.
Not only is he smartly attired in a suit and blue tie, but
he delivers his words at a rapid-fire pace with dates, times,
places all easily recollected. And rarely will he ever miss
a chance to flash those white teeth between his cheek-to-cheek
Through the support of his wife, who he said
"saved" him, and the strength of his family ties,
he fought the prosecutors. And all this in the face of ongoing
rumors that "I was a full department
store of suspicious activities, I was a full trading company
of suspicious activities."
So then if he did nothing wrong, what was the
reason for his arrest and detention?
"During this time I felt that a great
and powerful force was moving in this country around me,"
he said. "It felt very strange."
"strange" feeling came about by the influence of
the mass media and was bolstered by, Suzuki said, the prosecutor's
interest in Suzuki's involvement in the bid-rigging of the
diesel power plant project.
The power plant project had been organized
by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through Japan's Official
Development Assistance program. Suzuki said he didn't know
why they wanted to implicate him. He did, however, provide
He described in great length a period when
he was Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, relating an incident
concerning a potential policy shift with regards to Japan's
treatment of Chechnya in 1999. As a patriot, Suzuki feared
that if Japan recognized the Chechnya situation as an international
human rights issue (as the then Obuchi cabinet was proposing)
- instead of maintaining the domestic stance the previous
Hashimoto cabinet had taken - then Japan might be subject
Did the Ministry of Foreign Affairs then have
it in for Suzuki because of his opposition to this policy
change? He didn't say.
In mentioning this situation, and on nearly
all issues, Suzuki was like a boxer, circling and waiting
to land a blow, but refraining each time. He wanted to criticize
Prime Minister Koizumi, whose cuts in public works projects
have hurt the economy of Suzuki's Hokkaido area greatly, but
he said there wasn't time.
A stomach cancer operation prevented him from
running in the Lower House elections late last year. But after
a portion of his stomach was removed, he completed a 10K marathon
in Tokyo in March of this year.
Will he be able to show similar guts with his
candidacy for the Upper House elections this summer?
"I am receiving a lot of warm messages
from around the country, telling me not to give up and that
I should announce my candidacy for the election. I appreciate
these words and when the time is right I will make a decision."
Prideaux contributed to this report from the Tokyo Bureau.