The education ministry’s final report on its probe into the amakudari (descent from heaven) practice of its officials has confirmed 62 cases in which current or former bureaucrats acted illegally in finding jobs for retired or retiring officials at universities and school operators. The ministry disciplined 43 officials, including three former administrative vice ministers.

The practice of retired bureaucrats landing cushy jobs at entities in sectors that they used to supervise serves as a potential vehicle for corruption. The report concluded that ministry officials have for several years systematically violated the rules regulating the practice. However, it fails to delve into the key question of whether the ministry gave favorable treatment to universities in exchange for employing their retired ranks. Investigations should be continued to expose the entire affair.

What the report suggests is a collusive relationship between the ministry and universities. The ministry, which has the power to distribute subsidies to schools and to approve their opening of new departments, routinely arranged for universities to offer positions to retired bureaucrats. Universities accept the ministry’s requests — apparently in the hope that doing so will eventually benefit them or out of fear that turning down the requests will displease the bureaucracy.

Media reports on the scandal initially focused on 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. The bureau is in charge of distributing subsidies to universities and giving permission and approval in matters related to university management. It was found that the official sent his resume to the university via the ministry’s personnel section in July that year — in violation of the 2008 revision to the law on civil servants that prohibits government officials from arranging for new jobs of retired or retiring bureaucrats in sectors that they used to supervise and also bans officials from engaging in job searches for themselves while on government payroll.

Apparently behind such cozy ties is the prospect that universities will face serious problems in securing enough students as the population of 18-year-olds starts to fall significantly in 2018. Universities are eager to accept retired education ministry officials who are familiar with administrative procedures for such matters as obtaining government subsidies and getting approval for the launch of new departments, and can serve as liaisons with the bureaucracy.

To circumvent the rules under the 2008 amendment, the ministry had a former official in its personnel section, who retired in 2009, serve as an intermediary between the bureaucracy and universities. The ministry’s interim report in February focused on the roles played by this person. However, a subsequent probe unearthed a series of cases in which active officials, including administrative vice ministers and the head of the personnel section, were directly involved in securing jobs for retired bureaucrats. Such cases account for roughly half of the 62 cases covered in the final report.

Although the report details who acted how in each case, it falls short of clarifying whether any administrative favors were provided to universities in such matters as distribution of subsidies and approving their plans to establish new departments in exchange for the employment of retired bureaucrats. That’s the key question because that’s how the amakudari practice damages the public interest by distorting administrative decisions. Further investigation is necessary.

There is nothing wrong with bureaucrats finding new jobs on the strength of their own talent and skills. But bureaucrats landing jobs in the private sector on the basis of the powers of government ministries and agencies sows the seeds of corruption. That’s why the civil servants law was amended. The education ministry scandal shows how the bureaucracy gets around or ignores the tightened rules.

It is hard to imagine the education ministry was alone in violating the rules. The Re-employment Surveillance Commission of the Cabinet Office was able to identify the wrongdoings at the ministry by seizing email records from its personnel section and questioning officials concerned. But there are only about 30 officials at the commission engaged in the investigation and they lack the power to conduct compulsory searches and questioning. The Abe administration has ordered its probe to cover all other government ministries and agencies. But to make sure the investigation digs deep enough to expose the entire problem, the administration needs to beef up the commission’s powers and personnel.

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