A scandal over former high-level government officials being given jobs at universities after lobbying on their behalf by the education ministry has cause a public furore in Japan over recent weeks.
Kihei Maekawa, the administrative vice-minister of education, has already been forced to resign over allegations of being involved while in office in an illegal mediation attempt to help a ministry official find a post-retirement job.
Seven other officials from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology face disciplinary action and a government investigation has been launched to investigate dozens of officials in the ministry, which is expected to report back at the end of this month.
The latest uproar highlights the illegal practice of amakudari, which translates literally as “descent from heaven” – a traditional practice of government officials taking post-retirement jobs in the private sector or universities.
The practice was banned under the National Public Service Law passed in 2007 because of possible collusion between the government and private sector, and other conflicts of interest where officials try to secure a job in an organisation they previously supervised as a civil servant.
The cabinet’s Reemployment Surveillance Commission, which investigates misconduct by public servants, had been investigating possible revolving door cases since late last year.
It first reported in January that the education ministry's human resources section sent information on Daisuke Yoshida, a former director-general at the ministry’s Higher Education Bureau, to Waseda University to secure him a job as a professor before his expected retirement. Yoshida took up the job in October 2015.
Maekawa told the House of Representatives Budget Committee on 7 February, his first public appearance since his resignation on 20 January: “I accept as fact the [surveillance committee’s] understanding that there was a system for mediation and that the [education ministry’s] human resources division was deeply involved in it.”
Maekawa added he had believed mediation for retired bureaucrats would not infringe on the regulations.
Experts say recent cases of amakudari which came to light in late January, and which may stretch back to 2009, have taken on new significance against a backdrop of government-led reforms to raise the global rankings of Japanese universities.
“Hiring of retired senior officials in Japanese universities — which is illegal — reeks of unethical ties. This goes against preserving transparency in the education sector which has become a key to achieve university reforms based on meritocracy rather than influence peddling,” said Professor Masashi Nakano, an expert on public administration policy at Kobe Gakuin University.
In a bid to diffuse public anger, the education ministry recently published an interim report on amakudari on its website acknowledging reports that the ministry habitually engaged with universities to promote the hiring of its former officials.
The ministry’s website also reports it has taken disciplinary action against seven senior bureaucrats over their alleged involvement in illegal negotiations with universities and other organisations on behalf of their colleagues.
In the interim report released on 21 February, the ministry acknowledged 17 more cases of helping senior officials find post-retirement jobs at universities and other organisations, including the then administrative vice-minister, deputy ministers and division chiefs of the ministry.
Some 46 cases highlighted by the surveillance commission are being investigated by the ministry investigation team set up by the education minister, Hirokazu Matsuno, in the wake of the allegations. Many former education officials reportedly took up the university posts within two months of retiring, at least 14 of them the day after they left the ministry, according to the surveillance commission.
In many cases the former officials were given jobs as professors or as secretaries general at private universities.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe commissioned a government-wide investigation last month, looking into other ministries beyond the education ministry and said he would “formulate a response” to any amakudari findings. “It has to be said that this was organised. It is impermissible,” Abe told the Budget Committee last month referring to the education ministry’s involvement.
Japan’s civil servants, employed under a seniority-based promotion system, are well-paid and highly regarded socially. However, promotions become highly competitive with age and unsuccessful officials face a retirement age of around 60 on average.
The practice of amakudari is linked closely to the system where bureaucrats upon retirement find jobs in the private sector that seek their expert knowledge and networks, says Nakano. “Attaining tenure is extremely competitive and instructors have worked for decades sometimes before becoming permanent, if at all. Against this situation, the latest scandal has touched a public nerve,” he said.
For universities, employing a top former bureaucrat improves the prospects of gaining ministry funding for new projects and can smooth the passage of applications to start new institutions.
However, the practice has fallen deeply out of favour with the public who want tax money spent transparently and fairly, according to Professor Muneyaki Shindo, emeritus professor of public administration at Chiba University.
“But amakudari keeps going because the education ministry has installed a labyrinth of unnecessary rules and regulations to wield their power over universities,” Shindo explained, referring to the huge amount of detail expected for ministerial approval for funding, which has become horrendously complex in recent years and which some see as unwanted official interference that restricts university autonomy.
An example of collusion that has come to light includes leaking to a private university of advanced notice of a government inspection of the institution.
Impact on reforms
There are two lines of thought among analysts on whether the amakudari scandal will trigger changes to ongoing university reforms. One is that it will trigger understanding that having a bureaucrat on board is helpful, the other is that they will be a barrier to change.
“Bureaucratic expertise can support a [university] president who is pushing reforms against opposition, especially from academics in the university, which is a now major handicap,” said Nakano.
Japanese universities are struggling with bringing reforms to boost internationalisation. For example, academic resistance has resulted in slower than expected expansion of curricula taught in English which could boost foreign student numbers.
Professor Hajime Ota, a public policy expert at Doshisha University in Kyoto, insists amakudari hampers change.
“I am not calling for an amakudari ban. Rather Japan desperately needs to develop a transparent system where universities can hire bureaucrats or private companies based on their expertise rather than the power they wield,“ he said.
He stresses this change is particularly important with national spending dwindling annually and universities becoming heavily dependent on public funding.
“Japanese universities must be able to compete on an equal platform. With ex-officials being employed in better paying universities, there is definitely the possibility of these universities having an advantage over their counterparts that cannot hire the same people,” Ota said.
Photo caption: Education Minister Hirokazu Matsuno bows in apology at a news conference in January, after the release of a government watchdog report that revealed the ministry's illegal support for outgoing officials in obtaining jobs. Credit: The Japan Times
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