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Sunday, May 16, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Shooting politicians in a barrel more fun than addressing pension problem


In the past two weeks the pension scandal that has touched so many lawmakers has progressed from a political embarrassment to pure farce. The offered reason for regret is that the people's "trust in politics" has been damaged, a suggestion that's risible even under normal circumstances.

News photo
Former DPJ leader Naoto Kan

However, by dwelling on the apologies the media has obscured the real meaning of the scandal. The citizens know that the ruling coalition was pushing a revised pension bill through the Diet that would raise premiums while cutting benefits, and that the Democratic Party of Japan opposed it.

They also know that the DPJ, which was calling for an overhaul of the pension system, asked members of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Cabinet to reveal their own pension payment histories as a means of putting the ruling coalition on the spot. It worked. Three top officials were found to have not paid their premiums, but the DPJ scheme backfired, because it was also discovered that Naoto Kan, the president of the DPJ, neglected to pay some of his premiums.

After the three officials were outed, Kan gleefully laid into them in public, thus compounding his embarrassment when his own history of nonpayment was revealed. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda admitted he, too, hadn't paid premiums in the past and resigned in penance. The media howl for Kan to do the same became deafening.

Journalist Soichiro Tahara was livid. "Why don't you apologize to those three men?" he asked Kan when the embattled DPJ president appeared on TV Asahi's "Sunday Project" last week. "In the past few days you've appeared on so many programs, but all you do is offer excuses."

He appeared on eight programs, to be exact, which is a lot. Kan knew he would have to step down as president, but before doing so he wanted to make sure that the pension bill included an "agreement" among the political parties that integration of the disparate pension plans be discussed sometime in the future. But the media wouldn't listen to him. All they heard was a scofflaw trying to squirm his way out of an apology.

The media thus overlooked the root of the scandal, which is that no one understands how the pension system works. Few people are really happy with the revisions that passed the Lower House on Tuesday. Even Koizumi, in an unguarded moment in March, said that integration was a good idea, but it's generally believed that the LDP, in addition to mollifying bureaucrats, must throw a bone to its ruling coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, which drafted the revision. New Komeito's main constituency is housewives, the only demographic that benefits from the revised pension bill.

The opposition could not stop the bill, but Kan believed the compromise would at least keep the dialogue going, a belief not shared by some other members of the DPJ. The media is less interested in the dialogue than they are in playing gotcha with any political leader who seems vulnerable.

As reporter Shuntaro Torigoe pointed out on TV Asahi's morning wide-show last week, Kan's sins aren't half as bad as Fukuda's were. In an inadvertently hilarious interview in Shukan Bunshun ("Are you trying to trick me?" he asked the reporter), Fukuda essentially admitted that he did not pay pension premiums for more than eight years, owing to his own ignorance of the system.

Kan's blind spot was only 10 months. The media has called his version of the story "an excuse" because he blames his failure to pay on a processing glitch. When Kan became the Health and Welfare Minister in the mid-'90s he joined the special health insurance plan for civil servants. His wife went to their local city office and was told to remove Kan's name from the national health insurance plan. Since health insurance and pensions always come in sets, she thought she also had to remove his name from the basic pension plan and didn't realize her mistake until 10 months later. What's odd is that no city official pointed out this mistake.

Kan's situation proves that the pension system is so Byzantine that only related bureaucrats understand it. The politicians who haven't paid their fair share -- the list grows longer every day and now even claims officials of New Komeito -- were not venal or even lazy. They were simply ignorant, like the majority of Japanese citizens.

That ignorance is exacerbated by the special pension system for Diet politicians. In addition to the basic pension, they have to pay about 100,000 yen a month into this plan, but can receive benefits after only 10 years of premiums. The benefits are quite good, at least 4 million yen a year after turning 65. Compare that to the basic pension plan, which requires a minimum of 25 years of premiums and offers benefits that are only a tiny fraction of what lawmakers get. Once they complete their minimum 10 years, why should Diet politicians care about paying into the basic system?

The DPJ plan was to integrate all the different pension systems and then increase the consumption tax to cover current shortfalls in benefits, but the ruling coalition wants to keep the present unwieldly system for political reasons, although many experts believe it will go bankrupt even with the revisions. Kan has only himself to blame for his dumb remarks about the three nonpaying officials, but the media will have to accept some of the responsibility when the pension system goes bust.



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