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Sunday, June 10, 2007

MEDIA MIX

Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door — but no answer


Two deaths made headlines on May 28. Izumi Sakai, the lead singer of the pop group ZARD, was found at the bottom of an outdoor staircase at Keio University Hospital, where she was undergoing treatment for cancer. Her management quickly released a statement to pre-empt media speculation that the death was a suicide, presumably as a means of preserving the singer's post-mortem reputation. ZARD's most famous song is "Ma-kenai de (Don't Give Up)."

The other death, that of agricultural minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, was unquestionably a suicide, but the Liberal Democratic Party politician's legacy is beyond saving. People who kill themselves tend to earn a reprieve from negative public comments because it's considered bad form to speak ill of the dead, but the press has given Matsuoka no such dispensation. If anything, they've done the journalistic equivalent of propping up his corpse in order to sling mud at it.

The negative scrutiny wasn't immediate. As soon as the body went cold, the media was filled with cautious tributes, mostly from LDP colleagues. Foreign Minister Taro Aso lauded Matsuoka's "can-do spirit" and social affairs minister Sanae Takaichi said what a valuable addition he had been to their "team," and then promptly broke down.

But once reporters started soliciting others the comments had an unmistakable edge of anger and even disgust. One person from Matsuoka's Kumamoto constituency told a reporter that If he could kill himself, then he could very well have been guilty of all the things he was accused of.

He might have been guilty of even more. The presumed reason for Matsuoka's suicide was the lingering scrutiny he'd received for listing utilities on his office expenses even though his office is rent-free. On top of this, it was believed that he was about to be implicated in a bid-rigging scandal involving Japan Green Resources, a government-affiliated agency that handles forest management projects. Two other suicides have been linked to the scandal.

According to an article by Hiroshi Hasegawa in weekly magazine Aera, Matsuoka has been involved in many shady money deals over the years, including a yakuza-related scheme to sell improperly labeled meat to the government and the fate of 6 trillion yen in public funds that was supposed to help Japanese farmers survive the opening of the domestic rice market. Hasegawa says that whatever happened to this money, the situation of Japanese rice farmers hasn't improved at all.

Hasegawa covered Matsuoka for 13 years and has more than once found himself on the business end of the Kyushu native's infamous ire, which was demonstrated throughout the week in an oft-replayed videotape of a fist fight he had in 1994 at some local political function. Matsuoka was known to be surly, short-tempered and petulant. A former secretary told Nihon TV that whenever Matsuoka got upset he would threaten suicide.

Self-annihilation can be seen as the ultimate passive-aggressive impulse. Last year, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara criticized bullied schoolchildren who killed themselves rather than stand up to their tormentors. Somehow, he didn't reach the same conclusion about Matsuoka, characterizing his suicide as being worthy of a samurai because it showed that he took responsibility for whatever mess he had caused.

Ishihara made that comment before the press uncovered what some believe was the triggering incident. The day before he hung himself, Matsuoka was supposed to attend the Japan Derby. Horse racing is administered by the agricultural ministry, which means Matsuoka was expected to show up. When he opted to visit his hometown instead, he was criticized for shirking his duty. However, the weeklies found out from anonymous sources that the prime minister's office had told him not to show up, presumably because the Crown Prince was scheduled to be there and they didn't want royalty in such close proximity to scandal.

On the day of the suicide one of the first things Abe said to reporters was that he heard from prosecutors there was no plan to investigate Matsuoka over the bid-rigging matter. The comment set off red flags. No one had asked about the matter, so why was Abe so quick to mention it? He appeared to be practicing spin control even before there was any spin to control.

It was also hinted that Matsuoka may have been getting back at Abe and the LDP. Lawmaker and former LDP member Muneo Suzuki, who himself went to jail for the kind of money-related hanky-panky that seems de rigueur in politics, said that Matsuoka told him the party strictly forbade him to talk about the disputed office expenses because he was not required by law to do so. They said that once he did "then all the other Cabinet members would have to explain" their suspicious expenses as well.

No one buys the idea that Matsuoka hanged himself to preserve his honor or that of the Japanese government. It's a repugnant enough reason for committing suicide, but even more so for an elected official, whose responsibility is toward the people, not his overlords in the party. On the Nihon TV news show "Bankisha," writer Man Izawa called it an act of "cowardice."

Sixty percent of the respondents of a TBS survey said that Abe should have forced Matsuoka to resign following the office expenses scandal. Since it was Abe who asked Matsuoka to join his administration, it is Abe who carries the heaviest responsibility for his death. Shukan Shincho reported that Junichiro Koizumi never invited Matsuoka to join any of his Cabinets because of his "dirty" reputation. Even Koizumi knew that sooner or later Matsuoka was going down. Some people think Abe is going down, too, but is it because he was standing too close or because he inadvertently helped tie the noose?



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