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Editorial: Alleged bribery case damages trust in education ministry

It was an almost unbelievable deed, one that will damage the very roots of trust in Japan's education administration.

We speak of the incident sparking the recent arrest of Futoshi Sano, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's director-general of the Science and Technology Policy Bureau, on bribery suspicions.

Sano, who was arrested by a special investigative unit of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, was director-general of the minister's secretariat at the time of the alleged offense in May 2017. He is accused of helping Tokyo Medical University win tens of millions of yen in ministry grants in exchange for topping up his son's entrance exam scores so his son could get into the school in April this year.

The backdrop for the suspected corruption was an education ministry project to boost the brand profile of Japan's private universities. Intended to boost private institutions' competitiveness, the project funnels support to schools that have hammered out a distinctive institutional identity. Launched in academic 2016, 188 schools applied for funding in the following academic year. Sixty were approved including Tokyo Medical University, netting the school five years of support, starting with 35 million yen in subsidies in academic 2017.

The winning applicants are decided by an expert committee, which assigns point values to the program plan submitted by each institution. Sano is suspected of having used his high position in the education ministry to influence the selection process and push the approval of Tokyo Medical University's application.

The question is, was there that kind of leeway built into the system? The education ministry should carry out an internal inspection in parallel with the investigative authorities' efforts to get to the bottom of the scandal.

The operating environment for universities is becoming steadily more severe as Japan's birthrate remains low. This branding support program holds the promise of stabilizing a school's books with government money. If granted five years of support, the total subsidy package is worth well over 100 million yen, while the very fact of being chosen can be a PR coup for the university.

To misuse this system -- which so many universities hope to win grants from -- for an under-the-table quid pro quo is a major offense.

What leaves us speechless about this case is the nature of the alleged bribe. Namely, an official at the center of the education ministry, whose role it is to guarantee the fairness of university entrance exams, using his exalted position to secure backdoor admission to an institution for his own son.

What's more, Sano was director-general of the minister's secretariat when the ministry came under fire for "amakudari" -- the practice of retiring senior civil servants securing cushy private-sector jobs at companies or organizations that they oversaw as public officials. He was, at the time, in a position responsible for dealing with the issue, at the very heart of the ministry's management of the crisis. In other words, a man tasked with cleaning up corruption was apparently, at the same time, dirtying his own hands.

If people lose trust in the fairness and impartiality of university entrance exams, the exams cannot stand. Considering this scandal, the education ministry must reflect seriously on whether it is in fact qualified to be involved in the administration of the tests.

Meanwhile Tokyo Medical University, which granted admission to Sano's son, let its desire to be chosen for the subsidy program pollute its own entrance exam system. The school's chairman and president are suspected of involvement in the bribery case. If that is indeed the case, then they bear an extremely heavy responsibility both as administrators and as educators.

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