TOKYO -- A probe by a third-party panel on the central government's padding of disabled workforce figures has revealed deeply questionable practices extending back a long time, but did not conclude that national bureaucrats involved committed the acts intentionally.
The panel's report published on Oct. 22 faced strong criticism from people with disabilities, and invited a barrage of questions from many frustrated reporters who were not convinced by its conclusions.
Government agencies are required by the Act on Employment Promotion etc. of Persons with Disabilities to reserve 2.5 percent of jobs for workers with certified disabilities. The legal rate was 2.3 percent until March 2018.
"The probe is superficial," said Katsunori Fujii, head of the Japan Council on Disability. "It failed to answer questions about problems the panel itself raised -- the low level of interest in hiring people with disabilities, and the weak awareness about the ideals of the law (on increasing employment of people with disabilities). Why were they like that?" Fujii went on to say that ministries and agencies "possibly wanted to exclude disabled workers from their offices" and that's why they padded the numbers without actually hiring disabled people.
Masaki Nishimura, a board member of the DPI-Japan nonprofit group for disabled people, echoed Fujii's sentiment. "(The report) only listed up the problems. It failed to mention what each ministry and agency should do," he said, expressing his disappointment toward the panel and the government's measures to hire more workers with disabilities. "The central government should be a role model and a leader for the private sector." Nishimura, 60, is unable to move his legs as he was involved in a car accident at age 20. He explained that arranging the workplace environment to allow people with disabilities to continue working is what is needed the most to promote employment of such people.
Hiroshi Yamashita, director-general of an incorporated non-profit organization helping people with disabilities participate in the workplace, based in the Saitama Prefecture city of Koshigaya, north of Tokyo, remained angry over the latest findings.
"It's been proven that it's a system in which they think they merely need to match the legal requirements on employment numbers," he said.
During a press conference after the report was made public, panel head Gan Matsui had to field many questions about why the panel determined that the padding was unintentional. "There is no evidence," he said, adding that "no nonexistent person was counted in" as a disabled worker.
But the illicit methods national bureaucrats used in inflating the number of disabled workers were nothing but malignant. One example is the National Tax Agency, which improperly counted 1,103 workers as having disabilities, more than any other government body.
In 2017 the agency newly listed 80 workers suffering from depression and instability as being physically disabled. They included workers without government-issued certificates for the mentally disabled that are required for them to be included in the figure. An agency official told the Mainichi Shimbun that the wrong counting practice apparently had been carried on from predecessors. "We don't know how it started," the official said.
When asked at the news conference why this wasn't considered intentional padding, Matsui replied, "We also found this very unnatural." He said a hearing was held with the agency about the reason for this counting method, but the response was "we don't know." He added that an additional hearing was conducted, but this did not lead to the conclusion that the practice was intentional. "There was no evidence to overturn this, and the National Tax Agency quite frankly appeared troubled by it all," he said.
When asked if he thought there was no deliberate miscounting among the government bodies, Matsui said, "There weren't any cases of fictitious people being listed or of figures being made up with no thought of the state of disabilities." He underscored the view that government ministries' interpretations of the requirements on hiring disabled people had rather been "arbitrary."
At the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, it emerged that 74 people who had already retired were listed as disabled people that the ministry continued to employ, including one who had retired about a decade earlier. The ministry explained that people on previous lists had been added to the count.
Some ministries shared questionable counting methods. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the Ministry of the Environment, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, all improperly counted workers as disabled if they had extremely poor eyesight without corrective lenses.
At the Ministry of Justice, disabled workers serving as prison guards, immigration control officers and other such positions are not supposed to be included when calculating the rate of disabled people the ministry hires. However 109 disabled workers in such jobs were improperly included in the calculations. An official said the ministry was aware of the exclusion rule, but said there were cases in which such workers would be moved within the ministry, enabling them to be counted.
When a reporter suggested that this could be regarded as deliberate miscounting, Matsui said that there were such cases in which workers were transferred, and that the ministry had deemed that it was acting in accordance with the law.
"As long as there is no evidence to overturn this, we cannot deem it to be deliberate," Matsui said.
The questionable counting methods apparently stem from the line of thinking that legally designated rates of employment of disabled people needed to be met. An official from the land ministry told a panel hearing that the ministry "had the perception that it was essential to meet the requirement" while a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs similarly said the organization "had in mind the number of people needed for the requirement to be met."
But national bureaucrats do not seem to think about actually hiring more people with disabilities. The Forestry Agency had asked outposts each year if any of their workers could be considered as disabled, to make up for other disabled workers who had retired.
One reason the third-party panel couldn't delve deep into such irregular practices was they had continued for a long time, and little hard data existed. Workers at the government bodies were questioned verbally, but the panel wasn't able to trace all the way back to the source of the improper tallying.
"Conducting a thorough investigation on 3,700 people (the number said to have been improperly listed as disabled) would almost be like carrying out a criminal probe," Matsui said. He added that many people in charge of personnel affairs were in outlying areas and said, "Can we really spend a long time bringing people in one by one to question them?"
"My impression was that this problem occurred because people didn't really think about it. They just followed precedents, didn't hire new people with disabilities, and carried on with improper practices," said Matsui. "I was appalled by these actions done by public servants who are supposed to follow the law."
In response to the suggestion that the panel's probe couldn't be described as complete without finding out why such practices began, Matsui asked how far the probe needed to go to be complete.
"In this case, ministries and agency were obligated to cooperate, not just cooperate voluntarily. If they didn't, it would be a violation of a work order. We believe we conducted the necessary hearings," he said.
(Japanese original by Akira Okubo and Shunsuke Kamiashi, City News Department)