Greasing palms, or just the Japanese way?

The residents of utah have a reputation for sobriety and straight shooting that makes the Salt Lake City Olympic bribery scandal seem all the more scandalous.

But here in Japan, the practice of sweetening a business relationship with lavish entertainment and gift-giving enjoys a much longer history than, say, skiing.

As the investigation of Salt Lake City's zeal to get the winter Games in 2002 widens to include other venues, Nagano's own road to Olympic glory in 1998 is coming under scrutiny.

The inquiry may be good for Japan. Over the past two years or so, many Japanese have become increasingly intolerant of the favor-laden unofficial business that goes on between public officials and businesspeople.

An investigation into Nagano's wooing of International Olympic Committee (IOC) members may contribute to reforms in the Japanese way of doing business.

Such a probe won't be easy. Junichi Yamaguchi, a top official of the "bidding committee" put together to win the Games, says he sent the group's voluminous accounting records to the incinerator in early 1992. The IOC voted to award the Games to Nagano on June 15, 1991.

Nagano Mayor Tasuku Tsukada has defended the disposal, saying it was proper to burn the records after the committee had approved the expenses. "In Japan, that means it's all done and finished," Tsukada told the Associated Press this week. "We just followed the Japanese custom."

In theory, hosting the Olympics is a private affair. Local boosters get together to bid for the right to host the Games, which are owned by the IOC, a 105-year-old, non-governmental, and nonprofit organization based in Switzerland. The hundred-plus IOC members are not public servants, but they pledge to keep themselves "free from any political or commercial influence."

But oftentimes - as in Nagano's case - huge amounts of public funds are involved in bidding for the Games, building the facilities needed to hold the sporting contests, and providing the administrative staff necessary to oversee the hosting of an Olympics.

Nagano's bidding committee, in existence from 1989 to 1991, spent just under 2 billion yen (about $17 million) - of which 42 percent was provided by local governments.

The money was spent to bring 62 IOC members to Japan, although the IOC paid some travel expenses, and to send bidding committee members to various places to lobby the IOC to choose Nagano, an unremarkable city in the Japanese Alps that is the most southerly venue to ever host the winter Games.

WHEN IOC members visited Nagano, they were accommodated in first-class hotels, fed at the finest restaurants, shown around in helicopters, and taken to exclusive hot-spring resorts. Some IOC members received trips to Kyoto - Japan's cultural mecca and a city unrelated to Nagano's suitability as a site for wintry athletics.

"We wanted the IOC members to have a correct understanding of Nagano's eagerness to host the Olympics," says Hiroaki Shirotori of the Olympics division of the Nagano prefectural government. "We also wanted the IOC members to understand the beauty of Nagano. As far as the bidding activities are concerned, we strictly followed IOC regulations."

The regulations include a rule that says an IOC member can't accept a gift worth more than $150, but officials involved in the bidding process have told reporters that they presented IOC members with gifts worth $10,000 or more. These officials have also said the gifts were not made in the name of the bidding committee, but of some other party.

Salt Lake City is booming with investigators - five organizations ranging from the IOC to Congress are looking into the scandal - but so far in Nagano the suggestions of outright bribery are the domain of rumormongers. Even so, burning the account books doesn't look good.

This week Juichi Imai, a silver-haired former member of Nagano's prefectural assembly and a local political gadfly, received a letter in the mail with no return address. The writer appears to work in a government office involved with the Olympics, and says prosecutors questioned him over improprieties in the bidding process. (The prosecutors later dropped the inquiry citing a lack of evidence.)

Referring to comments by the mayor and Mr. Yamaguchi, the letter writer complains, "It was clear they were doing nothing but attempting to hide what they had done wrong in bringing the Olympics to Nagano - all the excessive entertainment provided for IOC members and careless behavior by the bidding committee members." He says he is personally upset because he and others had to endure the indignity of being questioned by prosecutors and encourages Mr. Imai to "take the case into the right direction."

Imai is also dismayed at the destruction of the books. "Have you ever heard of any other instance where such records have been burned?" he asks. "It's [the officials'] obligation to show the public how they spent the money."

He agrees that the cultural acceptance of wining and dining in official settings may be one reason so much was spent with so little public accountability. Also to blame, he adds, was confusion deriving from the mixture of public and private money funding the committee.

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