Editorials

Get to the bottom of 'amakudari'

Revelations of the education ministry’s organized involvement in securing post-retirement jobs for its officials at universities and school operators should shed light on the practice of government bureaucrats landing lucrative positions at businesses in industries that they used to supervise — which appears to remain widespread despite the tightening of regulations to prevent collusive ties between the bureaucracy and industries. The Abe administration ordered a probe into whether other ministries and agencies engage in similar acts. It should also examine whether the current rules are serving their intended purposes.

The 2007 amendment to the law on national government officials prohibited public servants from asking and arranging for re-employment of their retiring colleagues or former officials at companies or organizations over which their ministry or agency holds powers in such matters as issuing business permits, distributing subsidies and administrative guidance. It also banned bureaucrats from engaging in their own job searches while still in office by providing information about themselves to prospective new employers.

One of the problems that prompted the amendment was a scandal at the now-defunct Defense Facilities Administration Agency, in which the agency was found to have favored companies that hired retired defense officials with lucrative conditions in its contracts — and played a key role in the bid-rigging by contractors. The case exposed how the amakudari (meaning “descent from heaven”) practice of government bureaucrats landing post-retirement jobs in related industries and organizations breeds collusion that distorts administrative fairness and results in wasteful spending of taxpayer money.

A former director of the ministry’s Higher Education Bureau, who quit the ministry in August 2015 and was hired by Waseda University as a professor two months later, reportedly sent his resume to the university via the ministry’s human resources division that July. An official at the division has been found to have approached Waseda in June for employing the director, and arranged for a job interview, which was held two days after the director left the ministry. According to a Cabinet Office probe, its officials asked the university at that time to cover up the ministry’s role in landing the job for the director, and also gave false explanations to the recent probe by the Cabinet Office.

The government distributes some ¥300 billion in annual subsidies to private universities, and it would not be surprising if university operators considered former bureaucrats on their payroll as key liaisons with the ministry. The Cabinet Office probe determined that in addition to the former director, the ministry’s officials have been responsible in arranging post-retirement jobs for its bureaucrats in 37 other cases, nine of which are in clear violation of the law on public servants, including two cases in which Kihei Maekawa, who resigned as administrative vice education minister following revelation of the director’s case, was involved.

In the five years from 2011, 42 education ministry bureaucrats got new jobs as university professors and officials of school operators within two months of their departure from the ministry, including 14 who were employed one day after they retired — in obvious defiance of the rule banning job searches while they’re on the government payroll. There were reportedly cases in which retired officials of the ministry acted as a go-between to arrange for the new jobs for bureaucrats — to get around the legal ban on active officials finding jobs for retiring bureaucrats.

The 2007 amendment to the law may have prohibited central government ministries and agencies playing outright roles in finding new jobs in the private sector for their retirees. But the amakudari practice in itself is said to remain prevalent — as the interests of both the government bureaucracy and the private-sector firms that hire their retiring ranks converge. Officials hope to secure post-retirement job opportunities for themselves, while the businesses hope to explore and keep up the connections with the bureaucracy that oversee and hold various powers over their industries. It is alleged that some ministries and agencies continue to hold positions “reserved” for their retirees at companies and organizations on the strength of their supervisory powers.

Some blame the problem on the practice at ministries and agencies in which most of the senior officials on the career track effectively have to leave before they reach mandatory retirement age while only a handful of their peers in the same generation fill the limited number of top positions at the bureaucracy. But that’s a problem that the bureaucracy itself should resolve; in no way does it justify actions by government bureaucrats to secure post-retirement jobs in ways that distort their relations with the private sector.

An outright violation of the legal rules on amakudari is out of the question, but it will be no less problematic if the practice is kept going in covert ways or by circumventing the rules. The government should get to the bottom of what’s essentially wrong with the practice and take relevant steps.

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