The Diet earlier this month approved an ethics-in-government bill, more than a year after it was introduced under the initiative of former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. The way in which is was handled, however, indicates that the political drive to stamp out corruption has lost steam.

The bill was drafted by the three ruling parties that formed the Hashimoto administration — the Liberal Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party and Sakigake — following a spate of scandals in the ranks of the central bureaucracy. But it was left on the table for a long time; only when the last Diet session drew to a close was it cleared, albeit with revisions, in a deal that tied it to a vote on legislation giving legal recognition to the Hinomaru flag and the “Kimigayo” anthem.

The Finance Ministry and other government offices have already set up internal rules that regulate, among other things, dealings with businesspeople. But, according to some LDP legislators, a new form of entertainment is emerging with bureaucrats attending parties thrown by politicians for businessmen.

The moral here is that legislation will lose much of its intended effect if bureaucrats and politicians lack a keen sense of ethics. Public servants must reaffirm the self-evident principle of public service: They must be devoted to the public interest.

In fact, the primary aim of the ethics law is to re-establish that principle and eliminate the popular suspicion that money can move bureaucrats. Consequently, the law explicitly prohibits government employees from doing things that may arouse public suspicion and mistrust, such as accepting bribes and other favors from business and other private intersets, in the exercise of their authority.

Naturally, receiving entertainment from businesses in their charge — a practice that until recently went unpunished — is illegal. For example, it is against the law for a Ministry of International Trade and Industry planning official in charge of the steel industry to be wined and dined at an informal meeting of steelmakers where he sounds them out on the industry’s future prospects. It is OK if he attends the meeting without receiving entertainment.

What if the official is wined and dined by a retailer whose business he does not oversee? Such entertainment is in itself not punishable, but if the money spent on him at a time exceeds 5,000 yen, he must report the amount to the MITI minister. And any amount exceeding 20,000 yen must be publicly disclosed.

Thus the ethics law sets particularly severe rules for officials with middle and higher ranks. But, the nature of entertainment being what it is, some officials may find ways to skirt the rules — by not reporting the amounts involved. After all, it is practically impossible to track down every case of entertainment.

There is no doubt, however, that the law will have a restraining efect on government employees. Consider the case of a Finance Ministry budget officier who was reprimanded — not fired — for receiving entertrainment plus 15 million yen in connection witha credit union scandal. Although he later resigned voluntarily, he would not have behaved the way he did if he had known that he would be fired. Indeed, a disciplinary discharge would have been the most likely punishment had the ethics law been in effect at the time.

Perhaps no officials would dare receive entertaiment and other favors at the risk of losing their jobs. It is unlikely, however, that cozy ties between bureaucrats and businessmen, which are often disguised as “study meetings,” will disappear anytime soon. This and other forms of back-slapping government-business relations still seem to be deeply embedded in our society.

Diet members, meanwhile, failed to pass an ethics bill of their own — a measure that would prohibit them from using their own status to gain favor in return for their mediation services. The bill, sponsored by four groups in the Upper House, including the Democratic Party of Japan, New Komeito and the SDP, was never discussed. It is set for discussion in the next Diet session, but whether it will become law is uncertain at best.

More specifically, the bill would punish legislators who received money and other compensation for introducing bureaucrats to private organizations by virtue of their ties to those officials. A similar bill was introduced in last year’s regular Diet session, but it fell through because of strong objections from the LDP. The party appears to be trying to call it quits on the ethics issue involving both bureaucrats and lawmakers now that ethics-in-government legislation has passed.

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