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How the Finance Ministry Was Corrupted

SNA (Tokyo) — The document forgery scandal shaking Japanese democracy would not have occurred a decade ago, and it is important to understand how and why the Finance Ministry was so deeply corrupted during the Shinzo Abe era.

The Prime Minister’s Office has been gaining strength vis-a-vis the National Diet and the bureaucracy since the 1990s, which was a movement originally led by Ichiro Ozawa, advanced significantly by Junichiro Koizumi, but really brought into its own in the Abe era.

The crucial “reform” which led to the current scandal was the Cabinet Office assuming the power in 2014 to appoint all the top bureaucrats in all the government ministries. The Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs took control of the top six hundred bureaucratic appointments, more than tripling the previous number subject to its authority.

By all accounts, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga—the one who is in practical day-to-day control—has exercised this power ruthlessly and paid keen attention to this matter. The Abe government has not been interested in policy debate or contradiction from the ministry bureaucrats, but only their unquestioning loyalty and obedience.

Suga apparently even set up something like an informal spying system, wanting to hear any criticism that a senior bureaucrat might make about the Abe regime. It’s been described as a reign of terror.

Indeed, it was apparent almost immediately after the second Abe government took the reins in December 2012 that political loyalty was now the key to bureaucratic promotion. Previous governments had taken care to respect the political neutrality of the bureaucracy, but not this administration. Very quickly, it was those senior bureaucrats most willing to toady up to Abe team that saw their path to the top open up.

Today it is the Finance Ministry that is under the harshest glare of the public spotlight after forging documents in an effort to protect themselves and their political masters, but by no means is the political corruption of the bureaucracy limited to this one ministry. The Education Ministry acted corruptly over the Kake Gakuen affair and the Defense Ministry acted corruptly over the South Sudan peacekeeping mission.

These cases are probably only the tip of the iceberg, or those few items that journalists have so far been able to dig out.

To sum up, the two main factors leading to the current Moritomo Gakuen corruption scandal were the “reforms” which turned bureaucrats into mere servants of the prime minister’s office and the authoritarian attitudes of the Abe administration—not respecting dissent, alternative views, or even administrative neutrality—which ended up pushing the bureaucrats beyond the breaking point.

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