On Dec. 27, the top three executives of Japan Post Holdings Co. announced they would be resigning on Jan. 5 over the insurance sales scandal that first came to light more than a year and a half ago. The announcement comes on the heels of an order from the Financial Services Agency for subsidiaries of the firm to halt sales of insurance products for three months starting Jan. 1.

According to a Dec. 28 article in the Nishinippon Shimbun, the Financial Services Agency order and the resignations are way overdue. Under pressure from supervisors, salespeople were resorting to underhanded methods in order to meet strict sales quotas, which led to customers buying redundant policies or even paying for products they didn’t know they had signed up for. Many victims told the newspaper that they have yet to receive refunds or an apology. In addition, rank-and-file employees of Japan Post Holdings said complaints continued to flood their offices even after the company announced the results of an internal investigation and admitted to wrongdoing. 

It was Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, who broke the story on its nightly in-depth news show, “Close-up Gendai Plus,” on April 24, 2018. The program was soliciting further testimonials about the problem on its website and planned to run a follow-up report in August 2018. As it turned out, the follow-up didn’t materialize when it was supposed to. Japan Post Holdings sent a letter addressed to then-NHK President Ryoichi Ueda on July 11, 2018, demanding that NHK remove some of the video content from the “Close-up Gendai Plus” website, saying it was inaccurate. Although the producers reportedly stood by the report, the videos were subsequently removed and the second installment was postponed. 

The follow-up was finally aired on July 31, 2019, after Japan Post Holdings’ internal investigation found more than 180,000 “suspected” cases of improper insurance policy sales. Executives apologized on July 10 but none resigned at the time. The second installment begins with one of the executives, Kimikazu Sano, being shown video footage of customers claiming to have been cheated. It was recorded during the making of the original April 2018 program. Sano admits that his company had “damaged the public’s trust” and pledges to remedy the situation. However, after the broadcast, his company almost immediately commenced its vilification campaign against NHK. Mainichi Shimbun reported in October 2019 that Japan Post Holdings sent a letter to NHK’s governing board a year earlier, complaining further about the lack of “governance” at the broadcaster, and the committee “cautioned” Ueda, who denied that NHK was being pressured by Japan Post Holdings. Meanwhile, “Close-up Gendai Plus” continued to receive information from the public, saying that improper sales practices had not stopped, despite Sano’s promises.

Eventually, the chickens came home to roost. On Dec. 20, Shigeki Suzuki, administrative vice minister of internal affairs, which supervises Japan Post Holdings, resigned after the ministry decided to suspend him for three months because he leaked information about scandal-related penalties for Japan Post Holdings to the group’s senior executive vice president, Yasuo Suzuki, who held Shigeki Suzuki’s position in the 2009-10 administration. Although Yasuo Suzuki was not the top executive at Japan Post Holdings, the media website Litera says he was known as the “don” of the company, meaning its most powerful official in terms of influence. 

An unnamed reporter told Litera that an internal affairs ministry official blew the whistle on Shigeki Suzuki’s phone call and internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi felt she had no choice but to throw him under the bus, otherwise she would be blamed. Litera adds that if Shigeki Suzuki hadn’t been canned, the matter might have been traced to the Cabinet Office, since Yasuo Suzuki is close to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, having served under him when Suga was internal affairs minister. Suga reportedly helped Yasuo Suzuki get his position at Japan Post Holdings when he left government service.

According to another reporter interviewed by Litera, Yasuo Suzuki was in almost daily contact with the Prime Minister’s Office regarding the Japan Post Holdings scandal, since the company’s privatization in 2007 was one of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s signal accomplishments, and the LDP didn’t want to provide ammunition to critics of privatization. Besides, the government still owns 57 percent of the group. It was Yasuo Suzuki who put pressure on NHK to curb its investigation, and it’s implied he worked with the Prime Minister’s Office to do that.

In the end, Japan Post Holdings owned up to its malfeasance and NHK was vindicated. However, as victims and employees pointed out to Nishinippon Shimbun, nothing was done for a year and a half after the first “Close-up Gendai Plus” report and many people were scammed. It’s not really clear why Japan Post Holdings denied the evidence for so long, although the Japanese Communist Party asked Takaichi in the Diet on Nov. 7 if the delay had something to do with the planned sale of Japan Post Holdings stock, which took place before the second part of the NHK report was aired. Takaichi denied the assertion.

Part of the problem is that NHK gave in too easily. Popular TV “explainer” Akira Ikegami, who used to work at NHK, wrote in the online magazine Bungei Shunju that the management committee’s warning to Ueda was a very serious matter and highly unusual. NHK should have never put pressure on Ueda, because Japan Post Holdings’ actions were perhaps a violation of the Broadcast Law, which prohibits interference with programming. 

In any case, the producers of “Close-up Gendai Plus” themselves never stopped their investigation into Japan Post Holdings. And it’s not as if the group’s improper sales tactics were a shock to anyone. Until it discontinued the practice last summer, high sales quotas for New Year’s cards and catalogue gifts had been in force for years and they weren’t a secret. In a sense, the insurance scams were just business as usual. 

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