Abu is a small town in Yamaguchi Prefecture on the southwest coast of the main island of Honshu in Japan. At its peak in the 1950s, more than 10,000 souls called it home. The last time anyone bothered to check there were around 3,000 residents. The city last made headlines in 2018 when its mayor, Hanada Norihiko, opposed the installation of an Aegis anti-missile system battery.
Now the sleepy town is suddenly back in the news. And local authorities are scrambling to control the fallout.
The controversy has its origins in Japan’s COVID-19 financial aid programs. Around the start of the pandemic, each household received 100,000 yen (about US$776) for pandemic relief. In 2021, the country provided another special grant of the same amount to each member of a household under the age of 18.
Pandemic relief money comes from Japan’s federal coffers. However, the country left the distribution of the money to local governments.
And this is where things get complicated.
For months, local governments have been confused about how to handle distribution for minors. Initially, the government said it wanted to split the compensation in half. About 500,000 yen would be distributed in cash. The remaining 500,000 would take the form of vouchers for goods and services related to children’s education.
However, large municipalities, such as Setagaya Ward in Tokyo, have pushed back. The coupon system, according to officials, was too complicated. And besides, there was not enough time to issue coupons before the start of the next school year in Japan.
So the government gave in. They left the exact method of distribution to the local municipalities. However, it was only after some neighborhoods had started informing households about the voucher/cash system.
463 households relieved
In other words, municipalities were already tearing their hair out over haphazard pandemic relief programs launched at the last minute. It should therefore come as no surprise that such a hectic environment produces major errors.
And produce them, he did.
The problem stems from a 2022 relief program for low-income households who were exempt from paying municipal taxes in 2021. Once again, the government left it up to municipalities to distribute 100,000 yen to all households eligible for relief.
Enter Taguchi Shou (田口翔), a 24-year-old resident of Abu. One morning, Taguchi wakes up to find his relief money has landed in his bank account.
Except it’s not the 100,000 yen he was expecting. Instead, it’s a whopping 46.3 million yen, or nearly $360,000.
What happened? Put it down to a “write error”. Abu administrators were supposed to distribute 100,000 yen to 463 households. Instead, a random man ended up with 463 household relief payments.
Notice that Abu’s poor public servants weren’t the only ones sending money where it didn’t belong. In Osaka, administrators sent 2,196 people duplicate payments. Kobe accidentally sent a total of 3.3 million payments to 33 people. In both cases, the money was recovered quickly.
A spendthrift citizen, an outraged public
” So what’s the problem ? you might be thinking. “Can’t the guy just return the money?”
That would definitely solve it. Only one problem: the guy in question has already spent it.
Once Abu’s officials realized the mistake, they contacted the man and asked him to get the money back. At first he seemed cooperative. But then he got defiant. The misfire, he said, was the fault of the municipality. He refused to engage further with Abu workers without a lawyer present.
Naturally, the city wasn’t going to let this pass. They continued to pressure Taguchi to return his ill-gotten funds. Taguchi, however, insisted that was not possible. He claimed he squandered the entire sum on internet gambling sites.
If Taguchi’s claims were true, they would put him in double hot water. First, he had spent over a quarter of a million dollars that were clearly not his. Second, casino gambling – including internet gambling – is strictly illegal in Japan. (Yes, pachinko is legal, but pachinko is special.)
Harassment and Recovery
At the time, the town of 3,000 was making national news – and not in a good way. Mayor Hanada reported that city workers were facing a flood of complaint calls and emails from people ripping at the worker who made the mistake. “Our staff is exhausted,” he told reporters. “But it’s our mistake so we have to endure it.” He hinted at the possibility of the city suing Taguchi for damages.
The city ultimately determined that Taguchi transferred most of the money to three different proxy services frequently used by Internet gambling site customers. (He had also withdrawn a small amount via his debit card.) On May 18, police arrested Taguchi for wire fraud.
Since then, City has done a quick job of recouping Taguchi’s ill-gotten gains. The workers found the addresses of the three proxy companies and quickly issued seizure orders on Taguchi’s accounts. Taguchi had transferred the majority of the money – some 36 million yen – to one company, with smaller sums deposited with the other two companies. Between these three, the city managed to recover almost 43 million yen.
Even the mayor feels the bite
The story, of course, does not end there. Taguchi Shou still has to face his day in court. And his chances of getting away with it without criminal sanction seem bleak.
Even if he does, Taguchi’s fate is pretty much decided by the court of public opinion. Criminal offenders in Japan – and their families – often experience harassment and avoidance long after their sentence has been served. In all likelihood, once he has served his criminal sentence, he will have to move and change his identity.
But Taguchi is not the only one to suffer. Mayor Hanada announced on May 30 that due to his failure, he would take a 50% pay cut for three months. Abu’s deputy mayor and reimbursement manager will also take a financial hit for the miss. Four other employees have been officially reprimanded.
We’ll find out in the months to come what fate has in store for Taguchi Shou. In the meantime, I’m going to go double-check some numbers I entered yesterday…