As long as I’ve lived in Tokyo, I’ve wondered why the city’s public transportation system, maybe the best in the world, doesn’t operate round the clock. One of the explanations I’ve heard is that taxi companies have successfully campaigned against any extension of train and bus services past midnight.

It’s an explanation I’ve never really bought, but the recent scandal involving cabbies doing favors for bureaucrats has made me rethink the matter. Maybe it’s not the taxi companies who have lobbied against 24-hour public transportation, but rather civil servants. If the trains ran all the time, then bureaucrats would have to use them after midnight, and what’s the point of being a bureaucrat if you can’t have perks like free late-night taxi rides home?

The scandal came to light last month following questions brought up by Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Akira Nagatsuma, which eventually led to a government investigation that found more than 1,400 civil servants had accepted cash, alcoholic beverages and even bags of rice from taxi drivers in exchange for patronage. The drivers were private operators who received calls on their cell phones from bureaucrats after 12:30 a.m., at which point they can charge the government for taxi rides home, regardless of where they live. If he lives in a distant suburb, the fare can be as much as ¥30,000.

The outrage in the media has been loud and predictable. Reporters have hunted down these private taxis and discovered worse things than gifts. Bureaucrats are only allowed to recoup taxi fares for official business, but apparently they also used cabs for personal matters on the government’s dime. Company cab drivers, who work on commission, are doubly angry, since it means they miss out on those lucrative fares.

The scandal boils down to the use of taxi vouchers, a system that is so easy to abuse that it’s a wonder the media never looked into it before. Someone who did is Akashi Ikeda, a reporter who often writes for Sankei Shimbun. Ikeda spends a lot of time looking at the transportation expenses of public offices, and most of his findings come out on his blog. A year ago, he explained in detail how the land ministry’s taxi-voucher system works. A voucher is basically a blank check, and either the fare or the driver fills in the amount. The bureaucrat is supposed to take a stub from the voucher and hand it in to his supervisor, the idea being that when the government honors the voucher later the amount can be confirmed. But Ikeda found that there is no rule for filing the stubs. He was told that the supervisor just checks the stub when he receives it and if it looks OK he throws it away. If that’s the case, then a driver can fill in any amount he wants with little danger of getting caught.

Such a system makes the customer and the driver potential conspirators in fraud. In such a relationship, the private taxi driver becomes the personal chauffeur of the bureaucrat, something that couldn’t happen with company taxis, whose routes and fares are recorded by their dispatchers.

This idea that civil servants feel entitled to chauffeurs was reinforced by another recent scandal involving the land ministry. Last spring, the ministry’s regional offices accepted bids from transportation companies to supply drivers for official vehicles in fiscal 2008, but after the new contracts went into effect in April it was discovered that some 60 percent of the drivers hadn’t been replaced. According to the Asahi Shimbun, these drivers were simply let go by the companies that held the previous contracts and then hired by the companies who won the new ones. When asked to explain this peculiar practice, officials said that it was carried out to “maintain employment” of the drivers. Apparently, this was possible because executives of the transportation companies used to work for the land ministry, having obtained their positions through the still common practice of amakudari — the hiring of ex-bureaucrats by companies they used to oversee.

Though such a practice doesn’t technically qualify as bid-rigging, it sure smells fishy, and in fact Ikeda looked into the matter when he was investigating how revenues from the now infamous gasoline tax were being spent by the land ministry. On his blog, he said that a disproportionate number of vehicles bought last year by the ministry’s regional offices were Alphards, Toyota’s most expensive mini-van. These vehicles are supposed to carry staff to meetings and inspections of road construction projects.

Ikeda couldn’t get a satisfactory answer as to why they needed such expensive cars, but what mainly mystified him was the hiring of full-time drivers. The 10 cars owned by the Iida office in Nagano Prefecture, for instance, racked up less than 30,000 km total during fiscal 2007, or an average of less than 60 km a week per vehicle. The office employs seven full-time drivers out of a staff of 65. The official Ikeda interviewed insisted the drivers were necessary because if a staff member drove himself to an inspection or a meeting “he might get tired” before he arrived.

There was no byline attached to a related Sankei Shimbun article on June 20, but it’s likely it was written by Ikeda. In that piece, a former driver for a land ministry office said that most of his work involved taking staff on personal errands, and that two-thirds of his shift was spent reading magazines or watching TV. He implies he quit because he was bored, though he may have also resented the fact that a good portion of the money the ministry paid for his services went to his employer, the transportation company. Maybe he envied those private cabbies in Tokyo and their vouchers. Some chauffeurs have all the luck.