Morals and responsibility, blind loyalty and power harassment
Let's skip this time economic outlooks, business profits and political infighting and talk about morals instead. This might sound old fashioned, but it's an issue that has been up again and again in the news last weeks together with responsibility of officials, managers and others in power. Strong suppressing weaker, cheat and deceit, twisting truth and denying responsibility seem today widespread in politics, business and sports, even with private citizens. Good old honesty that Japan has always been so proud of, has been lost too often.
Recent case of a well-known elite university's football coach ordering his player to attack the other team's key player with intent to injure him – to "take him out" in professional parlance – was the No.1 news last week day after day. It was not just about bad sports, it was all-powerful coach's hideous pressure on the young player to commit a crime that could have invalidated the victim forever, then deny it, as well as school's efforts to protect the coach, not the player, that got the public infuriated. At the end, threat from other universities to cut all relations with the culprit school as well as indignation and concern from its Old Boys, many captains of Big Business now, that their old school was losing its reputation and turning into pariah, was needed to push Nihon University to understand another approach was needed.
Sports always get people's attention, yet the problem is wide spread: so many news last week were of other cases reeking similar protection for bosses, dishonesty and disregard for common norms. After weeks of denial Finance Ministry came clean to publish 900 pages of documents it earlier said don't exist, which prove it had actively negotiated the heavy discount for the land it sold to Moritomo school, something it had previously denied, as well as that it had doctored documents to back up its own official's testimony to Parliament that no such thing happened. Despite all fingers pointing to Prime Minister's wife behind such preferential treatment for the school owner – who is also indicted for falsifying documents to milk JPY 170 million subsidies from the local government - the nation's leader kept claiming ignorance and innocence.
Same story with the other school case where college establishment license and heavy subsidies were granted to Abe's old golf buddy: local government records show multiple meetings between officials and the applicant together with references that "this is what Prime Minister wants", yet neither officials nor Prime Minister "remember" any such talks. No wonder, Abe's reputation is hitting bottom figures and it is more and more likely LDP members will outvote him from leadership in September.
Last week's news parade continued with Defence Ministry explaining that its loss of documents about SDF mission's exposure to military threat in Sudan was, after all, not intentional, but just a human mistake. Come on, who believes that? Next, Nuclear Regulation Authority published report that ventilation pipes in 12 reactors at 7 plants, who all had applied for restart permission claiming they were safe, were badly rusted and full of holes. What "quality management" and irresponsible play with safety of local residents from the big regional monopolies! Next, a young swimming star was reported caught for taking performance boosting drugs – unbeknown and unintentionally, of course, he claimed.
In fact, above cases filled one entire NHK newscast one night – there was no time for any other news. If there is any positive take out of this, it's that even government's own public broadcaster is still honest and the nation is waking up concerned, people upset, of all this deceit and denial. It sure has taken long time: all through last year we kept hearing well-known companies one after another exposed for faked quality checks and turning out sub-standard products, yet nobody was criminally indicted. That big bosses showed up in TV, bowed and apologized telling it will never happen again, seemed enough. There was little national ire and anger - maybe corporate business seemed too far off from normal people's lives or maybe consumers think all salesmen lie anyway? Same for politicians: they are known to twist stories and shift the blame away from themselves.
Instead, when top sports and schools, superior elites and objects of admiration, are caught for same, it hammers the seriousness of the issue home better to each and every citizen. Same for government officials: we are used to trust that all people are treated equally in public offices and officials are supposed to be the ones who keep politicians on path of truth and reality, not protect them by "not remembering" and hiding documents.
Anybody who knows Japanese social order know well the traditional behaviour behind these events: respect and authority of powerful seniors and others higher up in the pecking order as well as strong loyalty to your own social or organizational group that can overcome general norms for behaviour, even legal obligations. Now we have rising debate about the moral responsibility of those leaders supposed to lead by example and refrain from misusing their given power. While sexual harassment of women has become a prevailing theme all over the world with "metoo" movement, in Japan "sekuhara" is viewed more as part of wider "powerhara" that those in power use against weaker, no matter if they are women or men. As the poor football player said in his national press conference: "I was too weak. I should have been stronger to resist."
Growing number of people don't accept this anymore and social media, popular opinion seem to back them up strongly.
Just to make sure: I am not thinking that Japan is somehow sticking out in these things. On the contrary, many other places around the world are downright rotten, corrupted and oppressive, much worse than Japan. In case you didn't get it: none of the politicians, sports coaches, government officials or corporate managers in above cases personally gained any money from what they did. They did what they did to benefit their bosses or organizations in misbelief that it was the right thing to do.
The biggest boss and most important reference group is the one closest to you. That an individual factory manager deliberately choose to undercut the quality rules set by the Head Office is much like a provincial daimyo in old days, who, to make his own people's lives easier, did not fully follow the rules set by the shogun in faraway Edo. You got away with it as long as the shogun didn't notice anything. Old days news didn't travel well, today they do. Even clever elites get caught and even weak opposition can call ruling government to account.
Looking for someone completely without morals, forging national policies based on what makes him popular while unscrupulously benefiting himself and his friends financially,
you will find the current president of United States. He also happens to be a intellectual moron without any manners to such extent that many people suffer to watch him on TV wringing his face and waving his little hands. Moreover, he is completely unreliable and unpredictable. In the beginning, we all thought he will be anyway guided from making totally stupid political decisions by the "wise men" around him, but now they are all gone bar one and he has surrounded himself with similar anti-intellectual "yes men" who think same. Or has even more outrageous world views like the new security advisor Mr. Bolton.
Mr. Trump's abrupt decision to cancel the ballyhooed meeting in Singapore was not a surprise itself but but his sudden turncoat sure was just after swearing with Mr.Moon to world media it was definitely on. Even more surprising then that we hear today that, after all, it's still on. It looked like he Trump had finally understood that he was not walking to history and Nobel prize but into catastrophic revelation that the Korean reality was totally different from his advance swagger. Kim's request through "messenger man" Moon that he would like to keep the meeting on track seem to have yet found positive response at White House: the heavily promoted television spectacle could take place after all. Moreover, a professional diplomatic team has been now sent to North Korea to sort out the different views of what the talks are all about. Hopefully they manage the daunting job. Until now all US preparations have looked more like advance promotion of Muhammed Ali's legendary boxing matches "Rumble in the Jungle" and "Trilla in Manila" – still remember them?
Whether the event will happen or not – and what ever the outcome will be – we will be anyway left with the commemorative coin that Trump had US government to issue for his "Peace Meeting with Supreme Leader" - a lasting testimony monument of his self-love that will become a collector's item. As well, we will always have the bizarre letter he wrote to Kim in history books as "study specimen for future diplomats of really bad letter-writing" - as one European expert put it.
"We'll see what comes out of this" seems to be Trump's strategic target not only for Korea but just about every global problem, most of which he has himself created so that he can then show "win" them. The list of challenges is pretty formidable: most recent ones include another showdown with Iran, possible trade war with China,
threat of another with neighbors Canada and Mexico and threat of big auto tariffs, huge economic damage, to those two plus Europe, Japan and Korea, all USA's closest allies. As EU president Donald Tusk said: "With friends like Trump, who needs enemies?" Or as IMF chief Madame Lagard said: "There is only one black cloud for the world economy now as all is going so well otherwise."
Coming back to Korean meeting issue, it looks clear to me that China is the one gaining from all this.
It is likely to loosen up its adherence to the UN sanctions against North and will probably get South Korea to join along. Also Japan will take a big step closer to China no matter what it's doing in the South China Sea and East China Sea. Even if adversary in some issues, at least China is more consistent in its policies. Over in Europe, it seems unlikely that EU will reach anymore unity to continue support US initiated sanctions against Russia in September. Everybody's pretty much sick and tired of being "trumpled" despite taking self-inflicted damage to stay in line with US. And you never know what Trump will come up with next.
"America First" has proved to be "America Alone". Other countries have to find their own way at least for next 3 years ahead.
Tokyo, May 28, 2018
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The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.