Commentary / Japan

Japan heading toward failure

by Jiro Yamaguchi

Media reports have raised suspicions that more than ¥200 million that Japan’s bid committee for the Summer Olympic Games paid in 2013 to a consultant firm in Singapore may have been used to buy votes in Tokyo’s successful bid for the 2020 games. The scandal illustrates how Japan is bottomlessly corrupt as a state.

At the time the payment was made, the biggest obstacle for Tokyo’s bid, as the then education minister has acknowledged, was the overseas concern over the radioactive fallout from the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The alleged payment to the consultancy in question and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s remark during the bid campaign that the Fukushima situation was “under control” can be connected as things arising in the same context of attempts to cover up the nuclear problem. The prime minister’s false claim during Tokyo’s official campaign for the 2020 games and the suspected bribery scheme behind the scenes constitute a perfect picture of corruption.

The scheming successfully brought the 2020 Olympic Games to Tokyo. But preparations for the games have met with unexpected obstacles. The design for the new National Stadium as the main venue of the event was finally adopted after a series of ugly twists and turns but the design’s extensive use of wood has left open the embarrassing question of where to place the Olympic flame. The cost of building other venues will also reportedly increase four-fold from the initial estimate to ¥300 billion.

The bid to host the global event may have been intended to galvanize the economy and cheer up popular sentiment in a country confronted with a declining population and mounting fiscal debts. But the nation is spending so much resources to prepare for the event that it can hardly afford to enjoy it.

And with the event comes the huge bills. The Tokyo Olympic project seems like a state-sponsored act of doping. Japan is beginning to lose a capability that a modern government should naturally possess — of making a plan to achieve a grand objective and steadily implementing the plan. The modern Japanese state — which boasted of excellent technology and capable organizations — is gradually treading the path toward a failed state.

The problem is not just with the government. Recent months have witnessed Japan’s leading companies embroiled in a series of scandals, ranging from the window-dressing of financial performance to the manipulation of vehicle performance data and falsification of data concerning the structural strength of condominiums.

For the past 20 or so years, corporate scandals have led to widespread use of the term “compliance” and major firms supposedly reformed their traditional ways doing business to eliminate irregular conduct. Nevertheless, recently exposed irregularities have brought such big firms as Toshiba and Mitsubishi Motors to the verge of collapse.

It is almost laughable to see Abe behave as if he were the almighty leader of a corrupt state. During a Diet deliberation he called himself “the head of the legislature” after he urged an opposition lawmaker to study the rules of the Diet. Although he later said it was only a slip of the tongue, he had made the same statement in the past.

Even schoolchildren know that the prime minister is head of the administrative branch, not the legislature. By claiming to be the head of the legislature, he may have wanted to say that as the top leader of the majority force in the Diet, he can make and change laws as he wishes. In fact, he replaced the chief of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau with a bureaucrat of his choice and got his security legislation enacted on the strength of the Diet majority of his ruling coalition despite suspicions that the legislation violates the Constitution.

At the root of Japan’s corruption is an arrogant attitude characterized by the idea that rules can be ignored and laws bent if they are inconvenient. Corruption further spreads as those in power contain criticism against their excesses that break the rules.

Today, many TV broadcasters, in particular NHK, refrain as much as possible from news reporting that is critical of the Abe administration. In reporting on the news of the arrest of a former U.S. Marine in Okinawa in connection with the recent murder of a local woman, one TV broadcaster exhibited the same way of thinking as the Abe administration. It stated that the murder happened at the worst possible timing just as the government was trying to publicize the friendly relationship between Japan and the United States by having U.S. President Barack Obama visit Hiroshima.

Failed states are often dictatorships. To prevent the failure of a state, the mass media and individuals must be able to criticize the errors of those in strong positions — be it the government or big companies. Those in power tend to fall into narcissism. To correct wrong policies, criticism from outside parties is indispensable. The Abe administration’s attempt to silence critical media coverage could cause the nation’s downfall.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Tokyo’s Hosei University.