Saturday, July 19, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish for: The Oita Prefecture Education Scandal

The publicly elected local boards of education, established at the prefectural and municipal levels, comprised one of the more ambitious initiatives taken by Douglas MacArthur and his General Headquarters staff in their wholesale effort to democratize Japan. But political considerations—the then-powerful national teachers’ union took a strongly pacifist-socialist stance—plus public disinterest led to legislation in the 1956 Diet to abolish the electoral system and turn the appointment of the board members over to governors and mayors. The real day-to-day power over the local public education system quickly passed into the hands of the superintendent*, one of the top posts in the local bureaucracy (the superintendent is also a member of the board), and his/her (usually his) staff. And there they toiled mostly in obscurity, barring the occasional corruption case and other isolated incidents… until the Oita bribery charges.

This 17 July Yomiuri report gives a fairly good overview of the education scandal in Oita Prefecture, where for many years top education officials had been heavily altering the results of recruitment tests in order to allow unqualified applicants to be accepted as schoolteachers**. They accepted money and other gifts from the grateful. Some promotions appear to have been similarly tainted. Political pressure also may have worked its magic. The scandal has received extended national attention, partly because little else of import is going on domestically, the Diet having shut down for the summer and no major acute disasters, anthropogenic or otherwise, assaulting the archipelago.

When the scandal first broke out, I had suspicions that irregularities in the hiring of teachers were the rule, Oita Prefecture not the exception. For I remembered hearing on more than one occasion when I was in college that it was near impossible to be hired as a fulltime schoolteacher unless you had kone, or “connections”. I refrained from blogging about the scandal, though, because many years had gone by since then, and I did not have any reliable source of information regarding the current situation beyond Oita Prefecture.

No more. According to the Yomiuri, 35 out of the 64 prefectural and special city education boards—each responsible for the recruitment exams in its area—regularly gave out individual test results to local politicians and their operatives before the applicants were notified. True, there are no accusations of influence peddling beyond the Oita case. However, the only way that I could make use of such information would be to notify successful applicants before they received the information through official channels so that they would believe that I had some influence on the results. Correct me if I’m wrong, but people do not go to such lengths just to create the illusion of importance. There may not be any more fires, but there’s certainly a lot of smoke.

How far and wide does the whiff of corruption extend beyond the education sector? I am not even close to an answer to that question. But in the meantime, let me give you one easily accessible piece of information. Seven out of the 47 governors currently in office succeeded incumbents who resigned as the result of scandals****. In fact, four of their immediate predecessors were arrested and indicted for bribery and related crimes*****. That’s an 8.5% crime rate, well above that of Cabinet Ministers and Administrative Vice-Ministers. In fact, the prefectural governor’s office must be one of the most—if not the most—crime-prone occupations in Japan.

The DPJ and reformists of many colors in the LDP want to turn more money and power over to the locals, and there’s certainly a plausible political case to be made for this. But there’s a nice bridge waiting to be sold to anyone who thinks perforce that corruption will go down and efficiency will go up as the result.

* The English-language media refers to the superintendent as “head of the board’s office” (correct; Asahi) or “head of the…board” (wrong; Yomiuri). I believe that “superintendent” best describes the role Asahi’s describes the role of kyoikucho, the top bureaucrat/administrator in the local education system.

** Other national media outlets are also reporting this extensively, but Yomiuri appears to be the most extensive and long-lived source among the English-language sources.

*** 17 cities designated by Cabinet Order assume many of the powers otherwise assumed by prefectures.

**** Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Ibaragi, Miyazaki, Saitama, and Wakayama Prefectures.

***** Fukushima, Ibaragi, Miyazaki, and Wakayama. The reason for the resignation of the other three: sexual harassment, political financing irregularities (the governor’s daughter was arrested and indicted), and massive misuse of government funds by the bureaucracy.


ross said...

There is in fact a correlation between federalism and corruption found in the political science literature, though it is a bit of a complicated relationship with some countervailing dynamics.

I think the problem though is less one of devolution than simply the lack of political competition in many localities. Competition will improve matters. Having governors nominally backed by all major parties is a recipe for disaster (or corruption as the case may be).

Jun Okumura said...

Thanks, Ross. I was making the weaker argument that devolution is nowhere near the panacea that the major political parties are making it out to be.

I agree with your point that the lack of political competition is the problem. Two of the governors who resigned under bribery charges were well into their fifth terms, while another, a first-term governor, had been elected with across-the-board support except from the Communist Party. But the fourth, also in his first term, had won an uphill battle against the DPJ/Social Democrat candidate. So as you say, it is a complicated issue