Monday, March 30, 2009

For the Observer - Nishimatsu Kensetsu In the Looking Glass

I have been trying to figure out what, if anything, Nishimatsu Kensetsu could have been buying from Ozawa Ichirō via its fully legal but entirely bogus political donations organizations. What the company could derive from Nikai Toshihiro, I understand: Nikai is a big fish in the Liberal Democratic Party pond, despite his years in the opposition, and the sitting minister of economic, trade and industry (Bingo!).

But Ozawa? A Democrat? The bureaucrat's arch-nemesis?

Aurelia George Mulgan, who wrote the book on the early career of the tragic clown Matsuoka Toshikatsu, believes Nishimatsu Kensetsu and other donating companies had a pair of goals:

1) the facilitation of bid-rigging and
2) insurance against Ozawa interference in the bidding on public works projects in his stronghold of Iwate Prefecture.

Ozawa political secretary Ōkubo Toshinori's helping rig bids for public works projects in Iwate and Akita in return for donations would be a fine crime indeed. Unfortunately, the concept has a gaping hole in its middle: bid rigging requires the collusion of at least one bureaucrat. To date no bureaucrat has been brought in for questioning in regards the Nishimatsu Kensetsu/Ozawa scandal. Without at least one person with his/her hands on the public purse strings, there is no case.

Buying insurance against Ozawa meddling in public works allocations in the Tōhoku region is a bit more ingenious. Unfortunately the accusation is not convincing -- and not only because of the unreliable publication quoted.

First, for Ozawa to be able to interfere in the disposition of public works projects in Iwate and the Tōhoku region, he would have to have leverage over central government bureaucrats. He may have had such leverage in the 15 months his Liberal Party was in coalition with the LDP (January 1999 to April 2000) but not before or since.

Second, as an Ozawa stronghold, Iwate Prefecture has been under constant threat of abandonment by LDP-led governments. It would be unlikely that Ozawa would "interfere" with any project, as interference could just as soon doom a contract bid as propel it forward.

Third, when the key to the narrative is that Ozawa is actually a gangster -- meaning that one has to pay him off if one does not want him messing up one's life -- bright red warning lights should start going off. "Ozawa = yakuza" is just too cheap, tawdry and obvious to be anything but a political hackjob. One has to wonder about the source, not the politician.

I prefer to wager that Nishimatsu Kensetsu donated sums to Ozawa and Nikai in order to gain protection from anti-competitive practices by other construction firms--and to get a leg up on smaller, local operators. As a mid-sized construction company (jun ōte kensetsugaisha) Nishimatsu Kensetsu is in a precarious position in the public works ecosystem. It is too small to openly challenge the Big Four construction firms and too big to be one of the Big Four's subcontractors. Unable to compete with other firms in either returns to scale or local expertise -- and always in danger of being colluded against by the Big Four - the company would need an alternative means of holding its ground. Donating, albeit through a subterfuge, to Ozawa, Nikai and others would be insurance, yes -- but insurance against the company's being locked out of bidding for contracts. Ozawa, Nikai or any of the other politicians patronized by Nishimatsu Kensetsu could, in theory and at short notice, be kindly asked to raise hell either in the Diet or on the prefectural level should Nishimatsu Kensetsu be prevented from winning contracts for reasons other than proper qualifications.

Whether Ozawa ever did anything in return for the Nishimatsu Kensetsu donations -- the whole point of prosecutors pursuing a case against Ōkubo Toshinori, by the way -- has so far not been established. Perhaps the ability to pose a counterthreat -- "Look, we are close to Ozawa, Nikai, Mori and others, so do not mess with us" -- was all the company ever needed.

The above would, of course, plop us down in a whole new bizarro world of political corruption and its prosecution -- where investigators hound politicians for accepting donations for which there was never a quid-pro-quo -- and where private insurance against bid-collusion, log-rolling and other anti-competitive practices is deserving of punishment.

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