Tokyo governor Naoki Inose's spectacular fall from grace

Naoki Inose says he was naive to take a loan of 50 million yen; he's now quit as Tokyo governor, but prosecutors are sharpening their knives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:26am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:26am

As a journalist, social critic and author, Naoki Inose was among the most respected in Japan. As governor of Tokyo, however, he has been comprehensively found wanting.

On Thursday, Inose announced that he would step down, bringing an end to a tenure that lasted just one week longer than a year, but has been on crumbling foundations for more than a month because of a financial scandal.

Inose, 67, had good reason for a demeanour that could be described as shell-shocked, given the rapidity with which his popularity plummeted. Just 12 months ago, he was basking in a gubernatorial election victory in which he tallied the largest number of votes in Tokyo's history.

That public acclaim was elevated to new highs in September, when the International Olympic Committee announced that Tokyo had been selected to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.

Inose had worked tirelessly to bring the Games back to the Japanese capital for the first time since 1964 and was apparently still planning to be in office for the opening ceremony in seven years' time.

The term the now former governor himself used to describe his political skills is telling; Inose says he was "naive". Political analysts in Japan say that is a little disingenuous, though it may have been just bad luck that brought the scandal to light.

And it may very well be even more damaging; prosecutors appear to be sharpening their knives, and Inose may yet face charges of accepting illegal campaign funds and even bribery.

Inose has admitted that he requested a personal loan of 50 million yen (HK$3.7 million) from Takeshi Tokuda in November last year, just one day before announcing his candidacy for the post of Tokyo governor. Questions have been raised as to whether the money was more of a bribe than Inose claims.

Tokuda is the son of Torao Tokuda, founder of the Tokushukai hospital group, which has itself been implicated in a series of bribery and fraud cases based on the testimony of a key aide to the elder Tokuda. Prosecutors raided the headquarters of the company in September on suspicion of violations of election laws, and Inose's name came to light.

Despite protestations of his innocence, Inose was forced to appear before a panel of the metropolitan government assembly this month. Over the course of four days of intensive questioning - in the full glare of the public and the media - Inose's memories of precisely what had happened, and when, changed on a number of occasions.

In an editorial on December 12, the Mainichi newspaper said Inose was "no longer viable" as governor of Tokyo, and the left-leaning Asahi demanded his resignation. A poll last Monday by the Sankei indicated that 89 per cent of Tokyo voters believed Inose's explanations to be "not credible" and 63 per cent said he was no longer a fit representative of the city.

Inose clung to power for a further three days, but his resignation was inevitable.

Born in Nagano prefecture in 1946, he attended Shinshu University and moved to Tokyo after graduating in 1970. He enrolled in graduate school at Meiji University two years later and studied political science.

His first book, Defeated in War in the Summer of 1941, documented the findings of the Total War Research Institute, which concluded that any declaration of war in 1941 would end in Japan's ultimate defeat. Over the years, Inose's output was prolific.

He got his first taste of politics after being invited to act as an adviser to the Liberal Democratic Party government of Junichiro Koizumi on the privatisation of Japan's highway system.

In 2007, Shintaro Ishihara, himself a former writer who was serving as the governor of Tokyo, asked Inose to work with him and named him vice-governor.

"Ishihara clearly liked what he saw, although that is slightly strange given what we know of Ishihara's nationalist credentials," Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, told the Sunday Morning Post. "Inose has never been associated with anything along those lines and almost seems to be an apolitical figure when it comes to Japan's relations with our neighbours."

The connection may have been through their shared literary backgrounds.

With his resignation last year, Ishihara designated Inose as his interim successor until an election was held. Inose duly won that vote, in part because of his strong public backing for the campaign to stage the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.

His desire to win the Games landed him in hot water in June - and hinted at his lack of political nous - when in an interview with The New York Times he appeared to criticise Tokyo's closest rival, Istanbul, in a breach of International Olympic Committee rules.

Asked his opinion on Rio de Janeiro hosting the next Games and Tokyo's chances in 2020, Inose said: "So, from time to time, like Brazil, I think it's good to have a venue for the first time. But Islamic countries, the only thing they share in common is Allah and they are fighting with each other, and they have classes."

After initially trying to bluster his way through the furore and claiming his comments had been taken out of context, Inose later apologised and agreed his remarks had been "inappropriate".

But within weeks he was celebrating in Buenos Aires, alongside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, when Tokyo emerged as the winning candidate.

The Japanese Olympic Committee has been quick to distance the event from the former governor and to reassure the rest of the world that Inose's resignation will have no impact on the 2020 Games.

"Mr Inose has been a fervent and [enthusiastic] supporter of Tokyo's bid to host the Games, and I would like to thank him for his tireless efforts and contribution to Tokyo's successful bid campaign," Tsunekazo Takeda, president of the JOC, said in a statement on Thursday.

"The Japanese Olympic Committee will continue working closely together with senior officials from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the national government towards preparations for the Olympic and Paralympic Games," he added. "Tokyo 2020's immediate focus remains firmly on finalising the establishment of the Organising Committee to ensure the successful delivery of the Games."

The international repercussions are likely to be minimal and Inose's departure will only cause domestic ripples.

"My guess is that he believed that he could accept the money from Tokuda and that nobody would ever find out," Okumura said. "His explanations, to me, simply do not hold water, and he would almost certainly have got away with it had the leaks not emerged from the Tokushukai Group.

"This is as spectacular a fall from grace as we have seen, but Inose must have thought he was making a pretty good bet that none of this would ever be uncovered," he added. "It was a good bet; he has lost."