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Editorial: Wining and dining scandals reveal Japan's distorted politician-bureaucrat ties

There has been a spate of revelations of Japanese bureaucrats having been wined and dined by private stakeholders, resulting in senior officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries being punished for violating the National Public Service Ethics Code.

    The scandals have left us appalled at the cozy ties forged between top bureaucrats at ministries and agencies and the very businesses they are meant to oversee and regulate.

    The communications ministry meted out punishments to 11 senior officials lavishly entertained by the eldest son of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and other figures from broadcasting firm Tohokushinsha Film Corp. It has also emerged that Cabinet Public Relations Secretary Makiko Yamada was dined by Suga's son and others during her days as a vice-minister for policy coordination at the same ministry, being treated to a dinner worth more than 70,000 yen (about $657).

    Following the revelation, Yamada offered an apology in the Diet, saying accepting the free meal was "out of carelessness." However, she ruled out resigning, and said instead, "From the perspective of a woman, I'd like to improve myself."

    Regarding the prime minister's son's presence at the dinner, Yamada shrugged off the fact, saying, "It wasn't such a big deal for me." Never did she provide any convincing explanation about why she attended. Yamada is responsible for publicizing the Cabinet's key policy measures, a duty for which a relationship of trust with the public is essential. For her to stay on in her post is beyond public understanding.

    Speculation has arisen that Prime Minister Suga forwent a press conference about the partial lifting of the government's coronavirus state of emergency to keep Yamada away from the media. If that's the case, she is already a hindrance to the government's public relations.

    Meanwhile, the agriculture ministry penalized a vice minister and five other officials in connection with a bribery scandal involving major egg producer Akita Foods Co. group. The officials are accused of accepting free entertainments from Akita Foods at the invitation of then farm minister Takamori Yoshikawa.

    Yoshikawa is known as a close ally of Prime Minister Suga, and served as a senior campaign strategist for Suga's successful bid for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party leadership.

    As it stands, the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats has been distorted. Bureaucrats are focused on currying favor with officials at the prime minister's office, instead of working for the people, which is their raison d'etre.

    The National Public Service Ethics Code was introduced following the wining and dining scandals involving Ministry of Finance officials in 1998. Behind the scandals was the arrogance of bureaucrats at the time. The recent scandals, however, may stem from bureaucrats' excessive fear of and subordination to politicians.

    Under the previous administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the government beefed up its control over bureaucrats by having the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs take sole control of ministry and agency personnel appointments of senior officials. This has made it difficult for bureaucrats to raise objections, and made it common for them to seek to act in accordance with the administration's perceived priorities. Nepotism has also become prominent, with those close to authority being given preferential treatment.

    It is a matter of course that the ministries and agencies that caused these problems should be held responsible, but they cannot be settled simply by shoveling all the blame onto the bureaucrats. It is politicians who are liable for creating the mechanism spawning a seemingly infinite spate of scandals.

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