The resignation of administrative vice education minister Kazuo Todani to take responsibility for the recent bribery cases involving senior ministry bureaucrats comes on the heels of the exit last year of his predecessor in the job, Kihei Maekawa, in the scandal over the ministry improperly arranging post-retirement jobs for its officials at universities. The fact that Todani himself was found to have been wined and dined by a consultant company executive who allegedly acted as a go-between for the bribed bureaucrats and the management of a medical university seeking favors from them points to the depth of the suspected collusion between the ministry and the education business. The extraordinary situation surrounding the education ministry should serve as an opportunity to expose the flawed structure that breeds such collusion and fix it.

In the bribery scandal, Futoshi Sano, former director of the ministry’s Science and Technology Policy Bureau, was arrested in July on suspicion of enabling Tokyo Medical University to be designated as recipient of a government’s research subsidy program in return for the university accepting his son last spring after padding his entrance exam scores. A probe by a third-party panel of lawyers commissioned by the school subsequently also showed that the university had for years been discriminating against female applicants by manipulating their entrance test scores.

Kazuaki Kawabata, former director of international affairs, was arrested later in the month on suspicion that he had been entertained by the consultant executive to the tune of ¥1.5 million — including repeated visits to expensive bars in Ginza — as a reward for other favors that he provided to the university. Suspicions have also surfaced that Sano had the consultant executive pay part of his son’s overseas travel expenses. They have both been indicted over the alleged bribery.

Following the arrest of the two men, the education ministry set up a panel of experts to probe the case. The panel scrutinized the activities of all ministry workers to see if any of them had been wined and dined or otherwise received financial benefits from the consultant or other outside parties. It turned out that Todani was present at one occasion when the consultant executive entertained the ministry bureaucrats.

Also reportedly entertained was Michikazu Takahashi, director of the Elementary and Secondary Education Bureau, whose resignation along with Todani was approved by education minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on Friday. Takahashi is said to have been entertained by the consultant executive in June 2017, when he was deputy director of the Japan Sports Agency, and has been questioned by prosecutors over whether any favors had been provided over the agency’s order of a survey from an organization with which the executive was once involved. Todani’s vice minister office has also been searched by Tokyo prosecutors.

That senior officials of the ministry overseeing the nation’s education policy either were arrested or resigned over wrongdoing or scandals one after another in itself is an extraordinary and deplorable situation. Todani apologized for the string of scandals that damaged public trust in the government’s administration over education — which he acknowledged would take time to rebuild. That effort will not and should not end with the departure of the ministry’s top bureaucrats.

The alleged collusion between the ministry, with its administrative and budgetary powers over education policy, and private universities, which face increasingly tough enrollment competition as the nation’s pool of potential students shrinks, was also believed to be at the root of the amakudari scandal that broke last year involving the ministry’s bureaucrats landing post-retirement jobs at private universities. The ministry’s officials and former bureaucrats were accused of carrying out for years organized efforts to arrange jobs for retiring ministry officials at private universities in violation of the law governing national government workers.

Dozens of officials were punished over the scandal, including Maekawa, who resigned to take responsibility as the scandal unfolded. However, the government’s probe into the matter did not delve into the crucial question of whether favors involving the distribution of government subsidies and other matters over which the ministry holds power were provided to the universities that offered jobs to the retiring bureaucrats. Officials have been punished over the illegal amakudari practice, but it was never made clear whether collusive ties between the ministry and the universities were behind the practice.

If a structure of collusion between the education ministry and the sector that it oversees is behind the bribery cases, it needs to be exposed and fixed.

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