Editorials

Dig up all the 'amakudari' dirt

The education ministry probe into its officials’ involvement in securing jobs for retiring bureaucrats has uncovered even more cases in which the legal ban on such practices was violated and circumvented to land lucrative positions for fresh retirees in universities and organizations that they used to oversee. Education minister Hirokazu Matsuno has confirmed that the ministry’s officials systematically broke the tightened rules on amakudari (descent from heaven), as the practice is known. The Abe administration needs to follow through on its pledge to fully investigate whether similar wrongdoing has taken place in other government organizations.

The administration needs to go further and answer the fundamental question of whether the hiring of retired bureaucrats by businesses and other parties over which their government bodies held supervisory powers, such as issuing permits and distributing subsidies, leads to collusive ties that distort the administrative process to the detriment of public interests. The amakudari rules were tightened following revelations of collusion between the bureaucracy and private-sector organizations that re-hired their former officials. The Abe administration must review whether the current rules are effective enough to eliminate the risk of such collusion.

The 2007 amendment to the law on national government bureaucrats prohibits officials from being involved in job placement for retiring bureaucrats and bans bureaucrats while they’re on the government payroll from looking for a job in businesses and other organizations that their ministries and agencies supervise. According to the probe, the education ministry blatantly circumvented this rule by having a retired official act as a go-between. This person is believed to have been involved in landing positions for 23 of the 37 retiring bureaucrats whose cases have been ordered investigated by the Cabinet Office.

At least since 2010, the job placement scheme involving the retired official as intermediary has been shared and passed on among the ministry’s human resources staff. This division is accused of attempting to hide its involvement from the Cabinet Office probe. Rent for the office of an organization for which the retired official served as director is found to have been covered by a foundation that receives education ministry subsidies. It seems clear that the tightened amakudari rules have been routinely violated, even though the ministry has so far confirmed as “illegal” only the 27 cases for which suspicions have been backed up by hard evidence such as email records and testimony.

Despite the ban on job searches by bureaucrats still on the government payroll in industries that they oversee, it has been learned that 42 education ministry officials landed positions in universities and school operators within two months after quitting the ministry in the five years from 2011 —including 14 who were re-employed on the day they left the government. Nine of the retirees were hired as professors or associate professors, while others were employed as senior clerks and advisers to school-operating organizations.

In amakudari, bureaucrats seek to secure post-retirement job opportunities for themselves, while businesses and organizations want to build and maintain connections with the bureaucracy that oversees their industries. Operators of universities and schools, which face increasingly tough competition due to the declining youth population, are keen to get and maintain access to information about the policies of the education ministry, which holds power over the distribution of subsidies to the schools and permission for creating new schools and departments. When a school operator that hired the retired official at the center of the job placement scheme as an adviser applied to the ministry in 2014 for the creation of a new university — with the official as its president — a ministry official in charge of the screening leaked information about the status of the screening process to the ministry’s human resources division, which has no jurisdiction over the matter. The operator eventually withdrew the application, and the ministry probe said it sees no evidence of wrongdoing in the screening itself.

The education ministry scandal has exposed the loopholes of the tightened rules on amakudari. The practice is also believed to operate in ways short of violating the rules. It is hard to imagine that the education ministry alone was taking advantage of the loopholes. The government’s promised probe into all other ministries and agencies needs to go deep enough to expose what is wrong with the practice at its core.