Scandal shakes Japan’s education ministry as senior official resigns

TOKYO – Japan’s scandal-ridden Ministry of Education saw the second resignation of a senior official in less than two years, revealing an institutional culture that has allowed corruption to take root in a context of increasing spending on top-notch research.

Deputy Administrative Minister Kazuo Todani resigned on Friday following a series of corruption cases engulfing the ministry. Todani’s predecessor Kihei Maekawa also resigned in January 2017 due to the systematic organization of comfortable jobs for retired civil servants.

Todani’s departure comes after the arrest and indictment of two ministry officials over separate corruption scandals. Todani himself was drunk and dined by a former executive at a consulting firm who has since been indicted around October 2015, according to a ministry report.

Michiyasu Takahashi, head of the Primary and Secondary Education Bureau, also resigned Friday in connection with the restaurant scandal.

This is not the first time that the ministry’s lack of transparency and its institutional failure have come to light. In January 2017, he was found to have illegally set up civil servants with cushy post-retirement jobs at universities and organizations under his purview. Maekawa was forced to resign and more than 40 other officials were penalized.

The unprecedented consecutive resignations of its senior official have raised serious concerns within the ministry.

“I think we get too comfortable with each other and forget to look at ourselves and our colleagues critically,” said a young staff member. The Ministry of Education, which is also in charge of culture, sports, science and technology, has only around 1,800 administrative staff, one of the smallest numbers among Japanese ministries.

“We are not really involved in expensive projects, like public works, so we are not so vigilant about conflicts of interest,” said an official.

The ministry’s growing spending in certain areas also makes it more vulnerable to lobbying from those seeking special treatment. “Other ministries and agencies are cutting subsidies and regulations, and fewer private sector companies rely on government help,” said Masashi Nakano, professor at Kobe Gakuin University.

But the education ministry is increasing spending to encourage universities to tackle cutting-edge research. It budgeted 46.8 billion yen this fiscal year for special grants to universities, up from 39.3 billion five years earlier. This presents an attractive opportunity for those looking to take advantage of government coffers.

Meanwhile, education policy has apparently taken a back seat. The ministry played an active role in policy development. But with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushing major initiatives like free secondary education and reforms to college entrance exams, he is now focusing more on ironing out the details of existing plans.

Businesses and others are also taking a more active role in education, for example in promoting edtech – using technology to help students learn – which raises further doubts about the ministry’s future.


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