Japan, More Corrupt than Botswana?
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
Many Japanese politicians are finding it difficult to understand why the African nation of Botswana has a higher bond rating than that of Japan. Indeed, on face value and in pure economic terms the ranking seems puzzling and even ridiculous to some. That Moody's Investors Service places less confidence in the second largest economy in the world and the biggest source of overseas development aid than that of Botswana, Chile and Hungary is a matter in merit of debate both internationally and domestically.
However, a perspective without much room for debate concerns Japan's poor state of governance. In fact, its system of governance has become as questionable as many of the most corrupt regimes in the developing world. Apart from the economic indicators that support Japan's low bond rating, the systematically scandal ridden political system in Japan over the past ten years has been part and parcel of Japan's failure to secure investor confidence from overseas. News reports over the past week have reinforced the image of Japanese politicians as profoundly corrupt and lacking in transparency. This week's Media Review focuses on how foreign media sources, after having witnessed endless scandals, have come to describe corruption in Japan as part of its political culture.
The corruption spotlight has followed Japanese politics and bureaucracy for over ten years now. In the Liberal Democratic Party alone, nine legislators have been arrested for crimes involving bid rigging and bribe taking since 1990. With Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi coming to power over a year ago on a pledge to clean up the government both domestic and foreign news sources decided to play the watchdog role. Whether he failed or succeeded the story was thought to be news worthy.
By now, having witnessed repeated and seemingly endless corruption cases during his tenure news sources have practically confirmed Koizumi's failure. Over the past week the BBC, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Associated Press have all featured articles describing Japan's government as endemically corrupt and resisting change.
The first such article was featured in the Washington Post as early as July 6 when Akiko Kashiwagi wrote on the ousting of the "reformist" minded governor of Nagano, Yasuo Tanaka. The reason given for his being voted out of office was due to the belief that he was a "flamboyant governor who challenged Japan's powerful construction industry". The article went on to describe that people like Tanaka were not welcome in local assemblies such as Nagano which are "often dominated by politicians with close ties to contractors". Robert Marquand of the Christian Science Monitor reinforced this notion in an article entitled, "Old Guard Thwarts Reform in Japan" (July 9). While the news item dealt with reform efforts related to the postal system its main theme described Japan as "a society that has long had an intricate and iron-clad system of patronage between corporations, government, bureaucracy and politicians". Marquand reinforced this viewpoint quoting a statement made by a former senior Clinton official and Japan expert which claimed that in Japan, "you have people who have benefited from a certain style of politics for 50yrs, and now they see that the policy of writing checks and hoping for the best is going to continue". The reporting of health ministry official Kazuaki Miyaji's resignation over allegations that he helped to get a supporter's grandson into medical school only strengthened this point. When Miyaji was quoted in an AP article on July 10 as having stated, "all lawmakers do this, if I were asked, I'd do it again", the image of Japan's political system as profoundly corrupt was confirmed.
By July 15 both Eric Talmadge of AP and the BBC were listing up recent LDP scandals that acted as a set back to Koizumi's plans for reform. They started with Koichi Kato who resigned in April over the misuse of $703,000 in political donations and alleged tax evasion. Then they turned to former Upper House leader Yutaka Inoue who resigned in May over his secretary's construction bribe scandal. Next to come was Muneo Suzuki's arrest over an alleged timber company bribe in June. In July two MOFA officials were arrested for a bid-rigging scandal, Health Ministry official Kazuaki Miyaji was forced to resign and now former foreign minister Tanaka Makiko will have to testify in parliament over alleged misuse of funds.
Considering the barrage of political scandals that have surfaced in Japan over the past year alone it is no mystery why many foreigners consider Japanese society as intrinsically corrupt and secretive. While this may not necessarily be the case in many sectors of Japanese society, it is hard to transmit a different picture of Japan when there is hardly a month without a new political scandal. The notion of Japan as a transparent and democratic country has largely disappeared from the scene. Instead people without access to alternative information view the relationship between politics and business in Japan as similar to those of many corrupt governments throughout the world. To the detriment of the Japanese people, the behavior of their politicians over the past ten years has led to the belief that corruption is part of Japan's political culture and by corollary its business culture as well. While many Japanese may be surprised by their being ranked lower than Botswana in Moody's bond rating, they should not be taken back to hear that Botswana is also viewed as ranking higher in terms of good governance as well.
- "Japan acts to curb influence peddling", BBC, 16 July 2002
- Eric Talmadge, "Scandals Drag Down Japan PM Koizumi", AP, 15 July 2002
- "Japanese Health Ministry Official Quits", AP, 10 July 2002
- Robert Marquand, "Old Guard Thwarts Reform in Japan", Christian Science Monitor, 9 July 2002
- Akiko Kashiwagi, "Reformist governor in Japan ousted by legislators", the Washington Post, 6 July 2002