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Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2006

One bad apple set to spoil Osaka's 'buraku' aid barrel


Staff writer

OSAKA -- More than six months after mobster Kunihiko Konishi was arrested for decades of embezzlement, Osaka is set to scrap two dozen city projects to aid the plight of the local 'buraku" community of descendents of the feudal outcast class.

Konishi, a senior leader of the Buraku Liberation League's Osaka chapter, was arrested in May and charged with embezzling in connection with his management of a city-owned parking lot. Since then, the city has been mired in corruption and embezzlement scandals, and it was revealed that he is a senior figure in the Yamaguchi-gumi underworld syndicate.

Konishi's arrest exposed decades of corruption involving city-funded projects to aid the plight of the buraku people.

Osaka now plans to shut down two dozen of the projects, mainly welfare-related, after March.

The city at first met strong resistance from the liberation league, an influential lobby group fighting to root out discrimination against descendents of the feudal outcasts.

But the public is no longer tolerant after years of misusing taxpayer money.

"Two decades of lax administrative and political oversight of municipal projects for the buraku community are the primary reason for the current problems," Hiromu Nonaka, former chief Cabinet secretary, told a recent symposium.

Nonaka, once a heavyweight in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was born in a buraku community, once suffered employment discrimination because of this, and has been a longtime supporter of the liberation league.

"Twenty years ago, when I was a Diet member, I warned local governments that they needed to be careful when providing funds for 'dowa' (buraku) projects because the system of distributing funds could easily be abused," he said. "Local political leaders at that time bear much of the blame for Osaka's current scandals."

Osaka pumped billions of yen into social welfare projects run by Konishi for more than three decades in line with its policy to ease the plight of the buraku people.

At the seminar, Nonaka did not address the implications of Konishi's arrest and mob ties on current public attitudes toward the buraku community. The liberation league has apologized for what Konishi did as a senior in the group.

Supported by public momentum to slash funds for the community, Osaka this month approved plans to abolish 24 dowa-policy projects in March, ranging from human rights centers to computer education for the elderly.

The budget for these projects this year totaled about 3.48 billion yen.

"This reform plan aims to re-establish trust between the city and local citizens. We now have to work to get it carried out," Mayor Junichi Seki said following Osaka's acceptance of the plan.

The buraku community is meanwhile split on whether the projects facing the ax are necessary. Privately, some who work at the various centers agree with the critics.

"Quite frankly, I can't really see what good we're doing here. The facility I work at is more like a kind of private club for a few elderly people. I've often wondered if it wouldn't make more sense just to close this place and put all of the information in a public library," said one worker at a human rights center, speaking anonymously.

Over the past few weeks, senior members of the liberation league have waged a media campaign in an attempt to persuade local voters that buraku discrimination remains a problem and at least some continued official assistance is needed.

But they have been mum on public statements by opposition politicians and media reports that Konishi is just the tip of the iceberg and there are other organized crime figures within its ranks.

"It's difficult to deny that the media reporting over the past six or seven months about Konishi and other scandals related to Osaka's dowa policies have created a negative impression with members of the public when they hear the word dowa," Michio Nogawa, a professor at Osaka City University and a dowa-policy expert, told the symposium.

Masayuki Oga, a member of the Osaka liberation league's human rights research institute, added that the league shares some of the blame for the Konishi scandal. But he also blamed the media for sensationalizing the problem, and, like Nogawa, worries about the negative image.

"We in the buraku community have to work with the media to restore public trust, and we have to convince them not to eliminate the dowa projects that are worthwhile," he said.



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