Scandal Taints Japan's Once-Pristine Bureaucracy

Japan is ruled by a triumvirate of powers: business leaders, politicians, and a corps of well-educated civil servants.

In recent years, the first two groups have been disgraced by scandals. Now the third pillar of the Japanese establishment is facing shame and scrutiny - adding momentum to calls for reform in the way this country is governed.

An editorial in the national Mainichi newspaper last week faulted the bureaucracy for "arrogance, demoralization, bribe-taking, and impudence."

"What more can I say?" sighs Makoto Sataka, an author who styles himself as a bureaucratic watchdog. "The corruption has gone so far."

The occasion for this popular repugnance is the arrest on bribery charges of Nobuharu Okamitsu, who was the top civil servant in the Health and Welfare Ministry until he resigned last month. Police said Dec. 10 that Mr. Okamitsu had admitted to receiving 60 million yen ($535,700) from a nursing-home developer to whom he channeled government subsidies, although he denies the money was a bribe.

This news is hard to take here. As in some other countries influenced by Confucianism, such as Korea and China, the bureaucracy in Japan is essentially a publicly funded priesthood. Winning admission to the University of Tokyo, the training ground of officialdom's top tier, and passing one of the government service exams has long been seen as a pinnacle of personal achievement.

In comparison with their US counterparts, Japan's civil servants have pervasive influence over laws and policies.

But public officials are increasingly seen as betrayers of the national interest. Okamitsu's former ministry was vilified this year for decisions made in the early 1980s that exposed hemophiliacs to HIV-tainted blood supplies. Some 400 people are said to have died as a result. Then Health and Welfare Minister Naoto Kan won broad public approval for publicizing the faulty bureaucratic decisionmaking.

Since late last year, the Finance Ministry's botched oversight of troubled credit institutions has prompted calls for the breakup of what has been called the single most powerful bureaucracy in the world. In both instances, officials were accused of protecting the industries they regulate - rather than the public - in order to preserve post-retirement job opportunities.

More light was cast last week on the small ways in which bureaucrats can receive a little something for themselves. An internal investigation at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry found that a quarter of the ministry's top 138 officials had been treated to a meal or a round of golf by an oil broker charged with tax evasion. MITI's top civil servant - a 1963 classmate of Okamitsu at the University of Tokyo - had to take a two-month, 10 percent pay cut as a reprimand.

Why is Japan's vaunted civil service stumbling? Haruo Shimada of Keio University in Tokyo says the bureaucracy has lost "a sense of mission." For much of this century, the country has had concrete goals: Before World War II, it focused on economic and military might; afterward, it concentrated on economic rebuilding and catching up with the rest of the world.

The latter aim was achieved more than a decade ago, creating lingering confusion about what to do next, and then the cold war ended. "We lost a kind of mental tension," Professor Shimada says. The result is a government whose bureaucrats have huge discretion in marshaling resources, but who lack something to marshal them toward.

Idle fingers, as one foreign observer here notes, have started wandering toward the cookie jar.

A host of reforms are being suggested, from the cosmetic to the basic. "We should narrow the discretion given to bureaucrats," says Toru Nakakita, a financial reform expert at Toyo University in Tokyo. He urges steps to counter the vertical structure of Japan's regulatory system, in which single ministries oversee entire industries, because of the opportunities it offers for corruption.

Shimada wants to see the government make greater use of open bidding in spending public money. As it is, Okamitsu was allowed to dispense huge subsidies to the developer of his choice without having to worry about finding the lowest bidder.

But Shimada acknowledges that competition has never been a wildly popular idea in Japan, especially among government officials. "They don't believe in the free market," he adds.

Ministries are devising new guidelines and politicians are discussing a new ethics law, but some analysts doubt this process will get very far. Putting a limit on the cost of bureaucrat's free lunch runs counter to the Japanese notion of high-minded public service.

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