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Sunday, July 27, 2008

MEDIA MIX

Cancerlike corruption thrives in heads of bureaucrats


The ongoing investigation into charges of bribery and employment-rigging in the Oita prefectural school system has occasioned more than the usual amount of harsh commentary you hear when public servants do bad things. That's probably because in this case it is believed that the minds of innocent youths may be permanently scarred by the sins of those entrusted with their education.

The Asahi Shimbun, for instance, said it was "appalled" by the scandal, finding the behavior of the miscreants "disgusting."

I could accept the shocked tone if the practices uncovered in Oita were unique or seemed to be limited to that particular school district, but the more I learn about the way public-school administration works, the more I am convinced that the problem is systematic; not just built into the educational system but hot-wired into the bureaucratic mentality.

Interviewed by TBS, the ombudsman of Oita City said that he had been suspicious of wrongdoing for years since his office had received a dozen or more complaints related to teacher hirings in the last decade. All his investigations uncovered nothing, however. Only six months ago, his office questioned two of the people who were later arrested in the scandal, which was supposedly uncovered by police monitoring discount-ticket shops to see when anyone sold an unusually large number of coupons or tickets. Katsuyoshi Eto, one of the educational-board members caught, allegedly unloaded several million yen's worth of department store coupons, attracting the attention of the authorities. Eto later admitted that he had been given the coupons by people who wanted him to help certain applicants for teaching positions gain jobs, and he manipulated test scores to make sure that happened.

It's hardly the first time this sort of practice has been revealed. Similar cases took place in Yamaguchi and Tokushima prefectures in the late 1980s, and in 2006 two members of the Osaka prefectural board were convicted of accepting a bribe of ¥350,000 worth of high-quality fabric.

The main problem is a gray area of influence-peddling. Appearing on TBS's wide show "Ping Pong," education pundit Naoki Ogi said it's quite common for parents to lean on elected officials to help their children get jobs as public servants at the local level. Of course, neither the parents nor the politicians who in turn call the relevant local government offices with "requests" spell out in detail what sort of favor they want, but the recipient of the request implicitly understands. "And the parent usually gives the politician something for his trouble," Ogi said. Politicians believe that such favors are part of their job, and, as Ogi added, the Oita scandal has relieved some of the pressure on them since parents dare not call up with such requests, at least for the time being.

Because of the opaque nature of education boards, it is relatively easy to make good on such requests. Most operate independently of their respective prefectural governments. In some prefectures, boards are elected, but these elected officials tend to be little more than figureheads. They have nothing to do with the real educational administrators, who act more like an exclusive club and handle everything in the schools, from hiring to selecting textbooks to carrying out facilities repairs.

In the West, public-school teachers are often portrayed as being underpaid and unappreciated, but in Japan, and especially in rural areas where employment opportunities are shrinking, teaching is a status occupation. The average public-school teacher makes ¥2 million a year more in income than the average household in a given locality, which is why there were more than 13 applicants for every job opening in the Oita school district this year.

In many other prefectures, the ratio is even higher. People who are already inside the system have a great deal of power in influencing who else gets in. Two of the people indicted in the scandal are a husband and a wife who both work as administrators in Oita schools and who allegedly bribed Eto to guarantee that their two daughters passed the test. They later told police that they didn't think their daughters could pass the exam on their own.

The media has cited this clannish mentality as the reason behind the Oita scandal, but such a mentality seems to rule most public offices, not to mention private companies, in Japan. So, the expression of shock and dismay about this incident sounds disingenuous, especially after you read the autobiographical article that Hiroshi Nakazawa recently wrote for the Internet news service Ohmy News.

Twenty years ago, Nakazawa was a substitute teacher in Tokushima Prefecture. Every year he took the test to become a full-time teacher but never passed. At the time, the age limit for new hires was 29 years old, so with every year Nakazawa's hopes for gaining a teaching position in Tokushima, where he grew up, became dimmer.

One day, a school principal called him into his office and said he thought he was doing an excellent job and had taken it upon himself to ask the board why Nakazawa hadn't been hired full-time yet. The board told him that it was mainly because of Nakazawa's volunteer community activities. "Your test scores and interview results are always good," the principal said. "So if you state that you'll quit these extracurricular activities, I'm sure you will pass (the test)."

Nakazawa was shocked and walked out of the office. Later, his father, a company executive, told him that a local assemblyman had called him and said the same thing: If your son quits his volunteer work, he can get a teaching job. But he didn't quit, and the next time he took the test he failed again, so he moved to Shizuoka and passed the employment test the first time he took it. He's been a teacher there ever since.



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