EDITORIAL: Ministry ignores ‘amakudari’ flap emerging at airport company

A former top bureaucrat at the transport ministry has been found to have intervened in executive appointments at a company that has long provided cushy, lucrative jobs to retiring ministry officials in a practice known as “amakudari” (descent from heaven).

Masaru Honda, a former administrative vice minister, indicated he was working in line with the ministry’s policy. His actions have raised serious questions about the fairness of the ministry’s administrative operations.

But the ministry has failed to conduct a serious investigation into the allegations after they came to light in media reports. The ministry’s response is baffling. The government should commit itself to uncovering the entire picture and taking effective measures to prevent a recurrence.

The company involved is Tokyo-based Airport Facilities Co., a listed firm that operates facilities at Haneda Airport.

In December, Honda visited the company’s top executives and pressed them to appoint Katsuhiro Yamaguchi, a former high-ranking ministry official who was the company’s vice president at the time, as its next president. Honda claimed he was acting on behalf of influential former top ministry officials.

Honda was in contact with two other former top ministry bureaucrats interested in the company’s executive appointments. The facts indicate that retired top officials of the ministry were using their influence over a company regulated by the ministry to ensure that senior executive posts at the firm would be given to specific members of their peer group.

Yamaguchi was named executive vice president of Airport Facilities in June 2021 after he told board members that the transport ministry wanted him in the post. What is particularly disturbing is that both Honda and Yamaguchi implied that the ministry’s intentions and authority were behind what they were doing.

Even though the two denied they were working for the collective interests of top bureaucrats at the ministry, the facts that have surfaced strongly suggest that they were unfairly putting pressure on the company by abusing the ministry’s influence over the private business.

The ministry has questioned the duo and some current senior officials about the matter and said it has found no confirmation of the involvement of any current official or a former official’s lobbying with the ministry regarding the matter.

Honda claims that there are no organized efforts to secure post-retirement jobs involving former ministry officials. The ministry seems to agree with him. Given that three former top bureaucrats were involved, however, their claims are hardly convincing.

The ministry has not even interviewed the two former administrative vice ministers Honda referred to. There is a compelling reason to suspect that the ministry is trying to keep the former officials quiet and play down the implications of the revelations.

At the Diet, opposition lawmakers have called for an exhaustive probe to get to the bottom of the scandal. It is vital to clarify the motives and other related facts to answer key questions.

They include whether people involved took any action that undermined administrative integrity and whether there have been any other cases of intervening in personnel affairs at private-sector companies.

If the ministry fails to exhibit the ability to shape up, the Cabinet Office’s Reemployment Surveillance Commission, which is responsible for monitoring the employment of retiring officials for any ethical problems, should take charge of the matter.

Amakudari, a long-running practice in Japan’s central bureaucracy supported by the government’s power to make decisions concerning budgets, permits and licenses, has been a key factor behind the collusive ties between the government and the private sector.

It has been criticized for serving specific interests and hindering the private sector’s vitality and dynamism.

A 2007 revision to the national public service law has banned ministries and agencies from helping retiring officials find jobs. But such activities by former officials are not banned.

It has been pointed out that “former officials” of various ministries and agencies are taking advantage of this loophole in helping retiring officials of their ministries and agencies land high-paying jobs in the private sector.

The former top bureaucrat at the ministry who has been mentioned told The Asahi Shimbun that the ban has left no choice but for former officials to play this role, which used to be performed by incumbent top officials.

This improper tradition must be ended. The government should start considering a system to impose certain restrictions on this sordid job-placement service practiced by former officials.

The Asahi Shimbun, April 13