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Twice a year, the government confers orders and honors on eminent citizens in recognition of their service to the nation or their local communities. This decoration system, which has been in place since the Meiji Era, has been drawing flak from part of the business world. Some business leaders are calling for a major overhaul of the practice, while others want it scrapped altogether.

In fact, the current honors system is anachronistic: Skewed in favor of politicians and bureaucrats, it does not give due recognition to the accomplishments of private individuals. In an age of small government, the decoration system as it stands impedes efforts to construct a healthier, more balanced relationship between the government and the citizenry.

Whatever the merits of this sort of argument, however, the matter must be dealt with cautiously. After all, the decoration system is firmly established and conferring honors is a time-honored way of recognizing public service. Also, it is doubtful whether abolishing the honors system alone would remove malfeasance and influence-buying between the public and the private sector. It is significant, nevertheless, that an influential voice has been raised against the decoration system.

One major criticism of the system came from the Japanese Association of Corporate Executives, or Keizai Doyukai. Earlier this summer, its panel compiled a report calling for a complete review, and the possible abolition, of the decoration system. Keizai Doyukai is not the only major business organization taking a critical view of the present decoration system. Mr. Kotaro Higuchi, honorary chairman of Asahi Breweries, Ltd., holds similar views. Mr. Higuchi, who has served in numerous advisory positions for the government, has chaired a private consultative group known as “Forum on the Future Outlook of Japan and Japanese.” It, too, looked into the decoration system and found it to be no longer compatible with today’s social values.

The government, the group says in a report, has no business ranking individuals through the prism of the lives they have led. Left unchanged, the decoration system “breeds social conservatism, sustains vested interests and hinders the passing of the torch from one generation to another.” Mr. Higuchi says none of his colleagues in the Future Outlook group would mind eliminating government honors altogether. “I don’t want (a government decoration), nor would any of my colleagues,” he says.

Behind the stand taken by the group and the Doyukai panel is a shared concern that in a mature democracy, affairs of state should not be left exclusively in the hands of government. Things tend to go wrong when the bureaucracy has absolute control. Both groups attacked the decoration system because they regard it as a symbol of state supremacy and as a breeding ground for collusion between the government and the private sector.

Such concern is not unfounded. First set up in 1875, the decoration system supposedly is designed to confer honors on “individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the state and for the public good.” However, any casual glance at an honors list would show that recipients of government orders and honors tended to be retired politicians and government officials. The system was revised in 1963 so that individuals active in all fields of worthy human endeavor would be included. Despite that, it has still not substantially changed since its Meiji days, particularly when it comes to the awarding of the highest orders.

Administered by the Decoration Bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office, the choice of decoration recipients is supposed to be based on nonbinding recommendations from various government ministries and agencies. However, since it is difficult to measure “accomplishments” by impartial yardsticks, titles often matter and the recommended list from ministries and agencies is almost automatically accepted. Lobbying for government honors, therefore, is intense, as people tend to measure their own worth against the accomplishments of their rivals.

According to one senior executive of a major steelmaker that had sought government honors, the amount of time and money invested “wasn’t something to sniff at.” If there must be reform of the decoration system, politicians and business leaders must first rein in their own vanity. After all, it was they and bureaucrats who promoted the “iron triangle” alliance. Scrapping the current honors system could be a harbinger of a healthier, more normal relationship between the government and the private sector.

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