Merits of After-Hours Reform

September 17th, 2001


Merits of After-Hours Reform


The Foreign Ministry has been embroiled lately in a series of money scandals, leading to the deterioration of morale and discipline. How and why did they happen?

To my recollection, corruption in the ministry seems to have some of its roots in the early 1970s when Kakuei Tanaka became prime minister. Tanaka’s debut upset bureaucrats who had been accustomed, ever since the Meiji Era, to bureaucrat-led politics.

The Foreign Ministry, which was still adhering to some of its prewar traditions, suddenly faced new challenges — dealing with a populist political leader with no bureaucratic background and improving relations with the feisty media. It’s natural and necessary for the ministry to adapt itself to the nation’s evolving democratic society, but some of measures they took for this purpose were questionable.

At that time, I was posted at a diplomatic mission abroad. The head office in Tokyo took a new approach: Take care of Japanese travelers overseas; be careful not to offend politicians and media people; and spend money unstintingly, if necessary, to stay on their good terms.

Having been trained in the field of intelligence, I had doubts about the ways taxpayer money was being spent for purposes other than the primary foreign service missions — diplomacy and information gathering. It was, however, the prevailing mood of the Tanaka period that money works for everything.

In previous times, overseas missions made it a rule to avoid lavish entertainment for VIP visitors from home. When any excessive request was made, an ambassador would say to his staff: “Refuse it politely. I’ll take responsibility if anything goes wrong.” The rule changed after the early 1970s. Now the same ambassador would say, “Do everything you can to meet their needs.”

A climate of corruption began to form. Expenses for a dinner party or fact-finding tour could be paid from regular accounts, but paying for “optional” pleasures in the same way was difficult. Officials in charge would have to find other ways, such as padding bills, to obey the order to “do everything possible.”

In the beginning, those officials probably acted with pure motives, such as excessive loyalty to the boss, a sense of fulfillment from a mission accomplished and, given the practice prevailing at the time, self-confidence in the ability to juggle accounts.

But having learned the tricks of generating unaccounted-for funds, some of them eventually succumbed to venal temptations. This tendency seems to have become more pronounced during the economic bubble of the late 1980s when everyone in the Japanese society was on a spending spree.

Social accounts covered not only expenses for visiting legislators and media relations, but also other areas of concern at home and abroad. In my view, this sowed the seeds of scandal and induced a mood in which public affairs was confused with personal interests.

If this analysis is correct, it may be said then that the Foreign Ministry has accomplished its housecleaning. For example, recently Diet members on an overseas tour were invited to dinner at an ambassador’s official residence, and they offered to split the bill.

People on both ends — the entertained and the entertainers — have become very careful about money matters. Ambassadors no longer need to tell embassy staff to “do everything possible” to please VIP visitors.

The possibility remains, however, that more irregularities or wrongs committed in the past 10 or 20 years will yet come to light. But it can be said with reasonable certainty that no fresh scandal will occur from here on. Now some of the “off-the-book” items created in the past for convenience’ sake can be transferred, if needed, to regular accounts so that diplomats can devote themselves to their duties.

The effect of housecleaning is likely to be permanent. Like the economic bubble, the money politics of the ’70s is already a thing of the past. It can be reasonably expected that the bureaucracy of the Foreign Ministry will get its act together and enter a new era.

But a worrisome question is, what will happen to the practice of improving interpersonal communication at after-hours parties and meetings? That’s a tradition deeply embedded in Japanese society. After formal work, staffs frequently spend time together drinking and chatting. Superiors listen to what subordinates have to say. It’s an informal way of promoting teamwork and has been accepted by everyone in Japan in both the public and private sectors — except for those who lack common sense and reject social mores.

In the prewar period, elite bureaucrats received perks such as the “committee allowance,” enabling them to invite people at their own expense. But in the egalitarian postwar society they were stripped of those special allowances. Economic Ministry officials had private companies foot the bills for parties. Foreign Ministry officials used expense accounts. People in the private sector used company money for after-work wining and dining as a way to promote workplace communication.

Obviously, such social spending without reasonable limits, would lead to erosion of morale. But it will be counterproductive to restrict such after-hours get-togethers too rigidly.

Suppose a vice foreign minister proposes to have an informal face-to-face dialogue with a vice minister of finance or commerce, or the chiefs of staff of the Self-Defense Forces. These days, the proposal will meet a negative response because officials are too nervous about recent wining-and-dining scandals in which bureaucrats entertained each other at the taxpayer’s expense.

Good communication between ranking economic and defense officials is essential for the effective conduct of foreign policy. Some things cannot be handled through formal contacts. If after-hours informal contacts are made impossible, something essential to interpersonal communication will be lost.

Officials in a responsible position should be allowed to mix more freely with other officials. Needless to say, all related expenditures must be fully accounted for, and any spending for private entertainment or personal gains must be strictly prohibited.

If, as a result of the internal reform now under way, the Foreign Ministry bureaucracy puts its house in order in a transparent manner, as it’s expected to, it will go down in history as one of the remarkable reforms of the Heisei Era.