Seshu special: Nobuteru Ishihara unemployed again

Last Friday, Nobuteru Ishihara, one of Japan’s most famous dynastic (seshu) politicians, announced he was resigning his post as special advisor to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, after the media dug up a story about his political support group receiving special COVID relief funds in 2020 while he was still a Diet lawmaker. However, even before the relief fund matter came to light, Ishihara had drawn the scrutiny of the press due to his appointment to a cabinet position so soon after he lost his Diet seat in October’s lower house election.

His loss came as a shock to many people outside of the party, including reporters, if for no other reason than that he is an Ishihara; specifically, the eldest son of Shintaro Ishihara, former governor of Tokyo, best-selling novelist of the Showa Era, and the self-appointed conscience of Japanese nationalists. More important for his political purposes, Nobuteru is also the nephew of the late Yujiro Ishihara, perhaps the most beloved movie star in postwar Japan. All the Ishiharas who entered politics could rely on the Ishihara Gundan—the action-movie stars who comprised Yujiro’s own production company—coming out during election campaigns to stump for their mentor’s kin. Though Japan is no more celebrity-obsessed than other countries, given the restrictions, both legal and self-imposed, of elections in Japan, the most important consideration is attracting voters to campaign events, and Ishihara Gundan was a guaranteed draw that Nobuteru could always count on. Alas, the Gundan was dissolved in 2020 when the production company closed, so Nobuteru couldn’t count on them for this year’s election. However, he also may have invested too much trust in his name-recognition value. One sports tabloid reported that he hardly campaigned at all.

More significantly, he wasn’t able to retain his Diet seat through proportional voting, either. Proportional candidates are placed on a ranked list by their parties. After the final proportional votes for parties are tallied and each is allotted a number of winners that correspond to its share of the vote, the choice of which party members will fill those seats is determined from the top down, and apparently Ishihara was not placed high enough on the list to get a seat. As a former secretary-general of the LDP, it seems odd he would be relegated to such a low position on the totem pole, but maybe the LDP bean counters were also over-confident in his ability to win in his Tokyo constituency. In any case, they made up for it by giving him a job advising Kishida on matters related to tourism (specifically “inbound” tourism, of which there is none at the moment thanks to COVID), a move that many in the media saw simply as a means of assuaging any hurt feelings on Ishihara’s part. It’s not as if he needs the job, and the advisory gig doesn’t come with a salary. The only remuneration is a per diem of ¥26,400, albeit one that is paid regardless of how many hours (or, for that matter, minutes) he works a day. 

Still, it was a money issue that compelled him to resign the post only a week after he assumed it. The COVID relief payment that Ishihara received was discovered by the weekly magazine Aera when it studied the revenues and expenditures for the No. 8 district of Tokyo, Ishihara’s constituency, reported for the 2020 calendar year. In April and May of that year, his office received a total of ¥608,159 in relief subsidies from the government. Basically, this money is a “leave” allowance for employees of businesses that have been forced to scale down due to the pandemic. In Ishihara’s case, the money was supposed to go to the aides that he hired himself. Diet lawmakers are allowed a certain number of aides/secretaries that are paid by the government. If the lawmaker needs more aides they have to pay for them out of their own pockets. What Aera found strange was that the total revenues for Ishihara’s office was about ¥42 million for 2020, while the total for 2019 was about ¥39 million. From a “business” perspective, Ishihara’s office made more money in 2020 than it did in 2019, before the pandemic started. In principle, on the application for the allowance the applicant has to show that their business revenue for the relevant month was at least 5 percent less than it was for the same month the previous year. Of course, maybe for those two months alone that Ishihara received the subsidy this was true, but practically speaking his office didn’t suffer financially for the year. 

In any case, the subsidy was designed for business owners, not offices of public servants. After all, Diet members’ office operations are guaranteed by the government, which pays each one ¥13 million a year, regardless of the general situation in the economy at large. The only possible reason that he could assert some kind of fiscal hardship is to claim that, due to COVID, he couldn’t organize the kind of fundraising parties that Diet lawmakers throw as a matter of course. But even in that regard, Aera found that his political support group received ¥4.58 million in donations that year, which isn’t a lot, but given the amount of funds guaranteed by the government, it’s just gravy.

A professor at Tohoku University told Tokyo Shimbun that being appointed advisor to the prime minister shows that the party wanted Ishihara to know that they considered him “special,” because usually in such cases the failed incumbent is simply put in charge of the party office in the constituency where they lost. Ishihara has been derided for special treatment in the past, most recently last January when he came down with a mild case of COVID-19 but nevertheless managed to secure a hospital bed. As for the COVID subsidy, Ishihara said there was nothing improper about it, but he decided to quit the post so as not to interfere with the workings of the cabinet office. Kishida also apologized, but not expressly for having hired someone who was so recently turned out of the government by voters. They always seem to forget the voters. 

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