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Wednesday, May 19, 2004

DID OZAWA SACRIFICE SELF TO HURT KOIZUMI?

Parties use pension scandal to score points


Staff writer

Is the exposure of an incessant stream of politicians who have not paid their pension premiums the result of a crusade to regain public trust in the pension system, a hysterical witch hunt or merely a political power struggle ahead of a key election?

Experts and political insiders say that all three theories have played a role in the ongoing scandal.

Veteran lawmaker Ichiro Ozawa was the latest domino to fall, stating Monday that he would not accept the presidency of the Democratic Party of Japan in light of his failure to join the pension system from April 1980 to March 1986.

In fact, Diet members were not obliged to join the system before April 1986.

Other major political figures -- such as former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and former DPJ chief Naoto Kan -- have relinquished their posts as a result of missed premium payments.

The DPJ chairmen of five Diet committees have also resigned from their posts.

"This is almost like a witch hunt," Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Shinzo Abe said in describing the anger of the public.

Under government-sponsored pension reform bills currently being debated at the Diet, this same public will likely be required to pay pension premiums that will continue to rise until 2017.

But the process leading up to Ozawa's decision is the clearest indication thus far that the pension fiasco has swiftly turned into an ugly battle between the ruling and opposition camps to gain the upper hand ahead of a House of Councilors election scheduled for July.

Shortly before Ozawa's announcement, some senior government officials urged reporters to check his pension payment records, hinting that his record was tarnished.

This served to buttress suspicion among DPJ lawmakers that the government, by checking Social Insurance Agency records, knows which opposition lawmakers have failed to pay into the National Pension System.

After a meeting of Ozawa's followers Monday night, a DPJ member close to Ozawa quoted him as saying that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi "must have known" about his nonenrollment.

This lawmaker went on to say that Ozawa also surmised that "that must be why Koizumi held a news conference to announce (his own missed premium payments) on the same day" Ozawa agreed to run for the DPJ presidency, last Friday.

But the opposition is not the only side suffering from leaked information.

Koizumi himself admitted having failed to join the National Pension System as a weekly magazine was preparing a story on the matter for its latest issue, quoting data from an anonymous source who apparently had access to Koizumi's payment records.

"Someone at the Social Insurance Agency must have seen it and leaked it. There can be no other possibility," welfare minister Chikara Sakaguchi told a news conference Tuesday morning.

"This deviates from (the actions of) national civil servants," Sakaguchi said, indicating that the person who leaked the information to the weekly would be punished if discovered.

Meanwhile, DPJ members agree that Ozawa's move is also a calculated attempt to destabilize Koizumi's Cabinet before the Upper House election, as six Cabinet ministers who did not pay their obligatory premiums still remain at their posts.

"Now Ozawa, Kan and five DPJ committee chairmen have quit," one DPJ member said Monday night. "This doesn't balance with (the number of resignations on) the Koizumi side, does it?"

Indeed, many government officials, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, have rushed to say that Ozawa need not have abandoned his plan to run for the DPJ leadership, apparently fearing that the latest move could turn the tables on the Koizumi Cabinet, which has tried to limit the damage from the pension premium fallout with Fukuda's resignation.

Yukihiro Matsuyama, a pension system expert and a senior fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute, said Ozawa bears little responsibility for his nonpayment.

"Judged calmly from a legal viewpoint, (not joining the pension system) is acceptable during the period before it became mandatory," he said.

But Matsuyama offered a different verdict on Koizumi, who was not enrolled in the pension system from April 1980 and March 1986, the same period as Ozawa.

"It seems Koizumi told a lie. That's the problem," he said.

Indeed, whenever he was asked by reporters and opposition lawmakers whether he had "a nonpayment period" in the National Pension System, Koizumi kept saying "no'.

The prime minister has insisted that he did so because he was asked about "nonpayment periods," not about "nonenrollment periods" when, according to his definition, one is not a member of the pension system and not required to pay premiums.

But Koizumi has also acknowledged that he was not enrolled in the pension system from August 1969 to March 1970, after returning from studying in London.

According to the Pension Division of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, a person is obliged to join the basic pension system if he or she is registered as living in Japan.

On Tuesday, Isao Iijima, Koizumi's secretary in charge of political affairs, said Koizumi was registered as living in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, both while he was in London and returning to Japan.

Six years, 8 months?

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told a Diet panel Tuesday that three months' worth of the pension premium payments he missed occurred while he was a university freshman.

Koizumi's aide said last week that the prime minister had not paid premiums for a total of six years and 11 months.

But on Tuesday, Koizumi said that between January and March 1962, one of the periods in question, he was enrolled at Keio University.

University students were exempt from paying into the pension plan, while students at cram schools, which are nonaccredited institutions, were not.



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