Recent revelations that senior communications ministry officials were lavishly wined and dined by Seigo Suga, the eldest son of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and other officials at a broadcasting firm have revived concerns and criticism about the ethics of bureaucrats, and questions about what constitutes a proper relationship between civil servants and those they oversee.

The National Public Service Ethics Code provides general instructions, with specific exceptions, of what is allowed and what is not in interactions with what the code terms as “interested parties.”

What is the National Public Service Ethics Code and how did it come about?

Police raid the Lo Lan 'no-pan shabu-shabu' restaurant, where Finance Ministry officials were wined and dined, in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, in 1998. | KYODO
Police raid the Lo Lan ‘no-pan shabu-shabu’ restaurant, where Finance Ministry officials were wined and dined, in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, in 1998. | KYODO

The code went into effect in 2000 as a result of the National Public Service Act, a law passed in 1999 following a couple of major scandals involving bureaucrats being wined and dined and accepting other hospitality and bribes from private firms.

In 1998, Finance Ministry officials were found to have accepted meals and been treated to trips to establishments where the waitresses wore no underpants (known as “no pan shabu-shabu,” or “hot pot without panties”), from banks seeking favors. The scandal shocked Japan, as Finance Ministry officials had been considered the most elite of the nation’s top bureaucrats and highly respected for their integrity and leadership amid the country’s economic recovery and rise to prosperity following World War II.

The revelations forced the finance minister to resign and 112 ministry officials were punished. But calls for reform from the public continued to grow.

The public service act of 1999 ordered the Cabinet to set up a code of ethics and also established a National Public Service Ethics Board to investigate allegations of improper behavior by the bureaucrats and impose disciplinary measures if they deemed them appropriate.

The board’s chairperson and four members were to be appointed by the Cabinet and each member would serve four years. A more detailed code was created by a Cabinet order in March 2000.

What major ethical scandals have broken since the code went into effect?

Several high profile ethics scandals involving senior bureaucrats have emerged, which then led to formal bribery charges.

In 2007, a senior Defense Ministry official was arrested and charged with accepting ¥12.5 million — including 120 golf outings worth ¥8.9 million — from a firm seeking a defense-related contract.

In 2018, a senior official at the education ministry was indicted for allegedly helping Tokyo Medical University secure a government subsidy in exchange for dinners, and a place at the institution for his son.

In 2019, another senior education ministry official was found guilty of accepting lavish meals worth a total of ¥1.48 million on at least 21 occasions from a former consulting firm executive. He received a prison sentence, suspended for three years.

The code refers to “interested parties.” What does that mean?

According to the ethics code, “interested parties” are businesses and individuals who have received, or will apply to receive, government permission to operate, as well as firms and individuals that have been provided, or will apply for, government subsidies.

In addition, it covers firms facing on-site investigations, inspections or audits by a national ministry or agency. Businesses and individuals subject to an adverse disposition and trying to seek favored treatment meet the definition of interested parties, as do those ordered by bureaucrats to make changes based on official administrative guidance.

The term also includes business operators in fields subject to promotion, improvement or business adjustments by a ministry or agency, as well as businesses that have contracts with the national government, have sought them, or will clearly seek such contracts.

What does the public service ethics code say is allowed, or not allowed?

The code sets out a number of specific behaviors that are not allowed, and some exceptions to those cases.

Some language is fairly vague, such as the stipulation that bureaucrats cannot accept hospitality considered beyond the level of general social norms.

Other sections of the code are more specific. For example, national public employees are not allowed to accept money, goods or real estate from interested parties. Exceptions to this rule, included in the code as examples, are items that are widely distributed to the public such as a company calendar, or a book that commemorates the company’s anniversary or foundation.

In addition, the code grants exceptions for weddings and funerals. The bureaucrats may accept money for a wedding reception or funeral condolence money for a deceased relative within, the code states, the realm of general social courtesy.

National bureaucrats are not allowed, in principle, to accept items like food and drink from interested parties. However, once again, the code provides exceptions.

Bureaucrats have permission to accept food and drink at buffet-style parties with at least 20 people present. Furthermore, if a large number of people attend the buffet-style party where the seats are not assigned in advance, they may sit and the party will still be treated as buffet-style, thus allowing them to accept food and beverages.

They may also have what the code says is a modest amount of food and drink at meetings that are part of their official duties, as well as at ceremonial meetings that are public in nature, such as an official reception at an international conference.

What about rules of conduct for paying the bill?

The code allows bureaucrats to eat and drink with an interested party if they pick up their own tab or if someone other than the interested party picks up the bill.

In the latter case, however, they must give advance notice to the ethics supervisory officer if the tally is expected to come to more than ¥10,000. If a third party wishes to pay, the code doesn’t provide a specific upper limit, but says the amount cannot exceed the level of general social norms.

What happens if the public employee insists on paying, but is told by the interested or third party that they should pay, say, ¥5,000, when the check comes and it is later discovered that the true cost of the meal was ¥10,000? In that case, the ¥5,000 difference is treated as having accepted that amount in hospitality from an interested party, in violation of the code.

What about other forms of entertainment?

As in many other parts of the world, much business takes place on the golf course in Japan, and the code offers some interesting, and specific, instructions as to how to handle invitations for a round of golf.

The code specifically says that bureaucrats cannot play golf with interested parties or play mahjong with them even if they pay their own expenses. However, once again, there are loopholes.

If, for example, the bureaucrat happens to be a member of a certain golf club, and if they happen to find themselves playing a round of golf with an interested party at the same monthly competition that is sponsored by the golf club, then there is no ethics violation.

The code lists several other restrictions, but also with exceptions or sometimes vague phrasing that allows bureaucrats more freedom to determine what is appropriate behavior — and, if they get into trouble, allows ethics investigators more leeway to determine whether that behavior actually violated the code.

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