Just for fun, try this whimsical little experiment: search the Japan Times website for “regain trust.” It’s an expression that recurs so often, and has such a long history, you’d almost think it meant something.

“[Prime Minister Yasuo] Fukuda vows to regain public trust” (2007);

“Steps urged for police to regain public trust” (2000);

“New Prime Minister [Naoto] Kan to ‘rebuild trust'” (2010);

“New NHK chief vows to restore trust” (2008);

“Food safety bills aimed at restoring trust” (2003);

“State’s nuclear policy faces big hurdle: regaining public trust” (2002).

These are a few of the headlines, randomly selected and in no particular order, among hundreds that come up. They cover a 10-year time span and refer, respectively, to: a series of political money scandals; a series of police cover-ups and botched investigations, some with fatal consequences; the Democratic Party of Japan’s free-falling support ratings following the abrupt and flurried resignation of Kan’s predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, mere months after the party’s historic electoral victory; an insider stock-trading scandal involving staff members at public broadcaster NHK; a string of food scandals, notably false labeling; and, last but not least, falsification by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) of reports of 29 voluntary nuclear power plant inspections — nine years before the nuclear meltdowns of March 2011 threw Tepco’s trust-regaining mechanisms into overdrive.

You naturally wonder, hearing the empty little cliché and its various cognates trip so lightly off the tongues of responsible individuals in politics, commerce, broadcasting and law enforcement: Is trust recyclable, like trash? Is there any trust to lose any more, let alone regain? Who do people think they’re fooling? You? Me?

The second headline listed, you’ll notice, is the earliest among the examples given, going back to 2000. Which is interesting in light of a feature in the October issue of the monthly Takarajima, whose title, mincing no words, is: “Don’t believe the police!” It begins with a list of nine offenses and asks readers to guess which of them have been committed by police officers since (as it happens) 2000. The offenses are: speeding, hit-and-run, robbery, shoplifting, cover-up of offenses, pimping, murder, drug abuse and obscenity. The answer is: all of them.

Who do you turn to if you’re in trouble? The police, of course. If you can’t trust them, who can you trust? That’s the feeling of last resort, though drawing an optimistic conclusion from an instinctive unwillingness to answer “nobody” can be a mistake, as Shinsuke Harada discovered late one night in December 2009. His case generated a lot of attention at the time, mainly thanks to his mother who refused to let it be swept under the rug. Harada (as Takarajima reminds us) was on his way home from a party when he was violently set upon in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station by a gang of toughs accusing him of groping a young woman. He managed to call police on his cell phone. They came — and promptly arrested him as a suspected molester. They interrogated him until six the next morning, laughing at his protestations of innocence. By the time they released him he was so shattered he threw himself in front of a moving train. He was 25. His mother Naomi spent a good deal of time thereafter in Shinjuku Station passing out photos of her son and appealing to eye witnesses. (The young woman who accused him has reportedly admitted she was mistaken.) In April 2011 Naomi Harada sued the police for damages. The case is ongoing.

That’s just one episode, of course. Takarajima offers a “national police scandal map,” spread across two pages, with an apology for being unable to include all the scandals since 2007, space being insufficient. All the same, it’s a pretty thorough-going catalogue of incompetence, roguery and vileness. Hokkaido 2008: police officer demands sex from woman in the course of an investigation; Chiba 2009: male police officer breaks into policewoman’s apartment, explaining when arrested, “I like her and wanted to get to know her;” Chiba again, 2011: police officer exposes himself on train; Kanagawa 2010: officer forgets gun in public toilet; Ehime 2011: senior police officer pulls gun on junior officer and aims it at the latter’s temple, later insisting it was just for laughs; Tokyo 2010: police leak data gathered in the course of a “terrorism” investigation involving, it seems, any local resident with any connection to Islam — and so on and so on. The “map,” incomplete though it is, features 50 “scandals.”

It’s only fair to add, as Takarajima does, that policework is extraordinarily stressful and that some allowances should be made. More than stress, though, it points to amakudari as the prime source of the evil. Amakudari literally means “descent from heaven.” It refers to civil servants aspiring to lucrative post-retirement jobs in the private and semi-public sectors. So deeply embedded is the practice, writes investigative journalist Yu Terasawa in Takarajima, that laws are designed to facilitate it — the 2004 ordinance privatizing enforcement of parking regulations, for example, creating a lucrative business for an ex-officer to step into.

Amakudari bedevils not only the police but the bureaucracy in general. No one wants to jeopardize a future nest egg; no one wants to rock the boat and possibly ruin post-retirement career openings. Rules are bent, standards go lax. That helps explain why the police have apparently made such feeble progress in “regaining public trust” since 2000. It helps explain why trust throughout officialdom keeps needing to be “regained.” And when the final explanation is written of what was wrong at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 melted-down nuclear power plant, look for amakudari to be a big part of it.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.