Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe smiles during a news conference. Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe smiles during a news conference. Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

The CEO of Japan’s Kobe Steel apologized earlier this month and announced he would resign after his company was found to have falsified product quality data for many years. Nissan issued a mea culpa in late 2017 for improper vehicle inspections, while Mitsubishi Motors admitted earlier to faking car mileage standards.

Takata airbags and Toyota brakes and accelerators were revealed as defective – and similarly covered up.

Given all the above, one often hears American and Western observers puzzling over what is wrong with Japan. Actually, nothing is. Japan has always been like this – even it’s vaunted manufacturing industries. The problem is more with Western perceptions.

A few years ago a US Congressional staffer, taken aback on hearing of corruption surrounding US base construction in Japan, blurted out: “But I thought the Japanese are honest.” The response? “No … the Japanese are human.”

Tongue in cheek, an observer suggested that in the United States if one yells out the window, ‘I’m sorry!’ someone will yell back, ‘That’s ok. Don’t do it again.’ In Japan, yell that and someone will respond: “That’s ok. Next time don’t get caught.”

There’s as much human frailty in Japan as anywhere, and the latest incidents are nothing new.

Long lists, broad problems

In 2005, the Huser-Aneha scandal caught a condominium developer and an architectural firm faking earthquake resistance standards in their buildings.

In the early 2000’s, the well-known Snow Brand food company turned out tainted milk, extended expiration dates, mislabeled meat products – and hoped nobody would notice. Paloma Corporation’s heaters malfunctioned and killed people from the 1980s into the 2000s – but the company didn’t tell anyone.

Japan’s financial world also has issues.

In 2012, an asset management firm named AIJ went bust – along with the pensions of 880,000 employees of small and medium sized companies. Former executives of Nomura, Japan’s premier financial firm, oversaw this fraud. Other financial scandals stretching back years – often involving the underworld – roll off the tongue: Incubator Bank of Japan, Olympus, Livedoor, Murakami Fund, SFCG, Aiful, Recruit, Goodwill, Dai-ichi Kangyo Bank, Nikko…

Indeed, the entire 1980s “bubble era” was a nationwide get-rich-quick scheme underpinned by bankers, officials, politicians and organized crime operating a real estate lending racket.

And then there’s public works and construction. Bid-rigging is still a moral imperative in Japan – despite quixotic efforts to eliminate it. Nobody likes to think about the Tohoku earthquake clean up – but over-billing, waste and underworld involvement are rumored.

Construction for the 2020 Olympics is also suspect – particularly after pictures appeared a couple years ago of the Japan Olympic Committee’s Vice-Chairman hobnobbing with the top boss of Yamaguchi gumi – Japan’s largest Yakuza group.

The official reaction to the photos? Nothing to see here. Move along.

Speaking of the Yakuza: The fact that organized crime groups operate openly in Japan says plenty.

Japan’s long-suffering work force also deserves mention. “Death by overwork” incidents follow, one after another. “Black companies” are a hot topic on the internet. Meanwhile, the government’s foreign trainee program sometimes resembles a modern version of indentured bondage, benefiting labor-strapped Japanese companies and the agriculture industry.

Finally there’s the political world and the story of the moment. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s travails over alleged cronyism are modest compared with the gold bars found literally and figuratively under the tatami mats at Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) kingpin Kanemaru Shin’s home and offices in the early 1990s.

The expression “Lockheed Scandal” still resonates 45 years after then-PM Tanaka Kakuei accepted – without any arm twisting – payments from America’s Lockheed Corporation.

How best to proceed?

Cleaning it up? Good luck. DPJ politician Ishii Koki was one of the few – and most vocal – critics of corruption. One afternoon in 2002 he was knifed to death outside his home. A low-level gangster turned himself in and the police closed the case post haste.

In fairness, Japanese are not unusually prone to this sort of behavior. And at the individual citizen’s level they detest it – but there’s little they can do. An anthropologist might explain best, but here’s a few ideas.

First, Japan has no real investigative reporting to expose wrongdoing. And there’s no aggressive Rudy Giuliani-type prosecutors looking to make a name for themselves. Other than some impressive, but too few, organized crime cops, law enforcement is lethargic.

None of this is surprising since there’s scant political support for a clean-up. Ask a Japanese politician what’s wrong and the answer will resemble a Boston city councilman explaining away $15 billion to build a tunnel as “It’s the culchuh!” (“It’s the culture”, in plain English).

Curiously, it’s not so often someone making off with $20 million and heading to Vancouver. Rather, in Japan it’s so darn hard to say “no.” Nobody admires the guy speaking truth to power. So when faced with impossible demands, one goes along. Add in the mortal Japanese fear of embarrassment and it gets even harder.

But some perspective is important – and Japan hasn’t cornered the market on scandals.

America out-mafias the mafia. Is Japan different?

Even if Yakuza bosses and Japan’s seediest politicians racked their brains, they couldn’t match Wall Street and Washington’s “sub-prime” debacle for pure criminality. And the Enron scandal? That was America’s pedigreed class outdoing the mafia.

Granted, this is all juicy stuff about Japan. But so what? Like every country, it has problems – and most countries would be glad to only have Japan’s problems. Japan’s aforementioned shortcomings are unlikely to improve – and it’s still a very nice country.

But here’s why it matters: It’s not only foreigners who see Japan as different; the Japanese do as well.

This was absurdly displayed during 1980-1990s trade wars when Japanese officials claimed American skis don’t slide on Japanese snow, or Japanese intestines can’t handle foreign beef. Japan’s trade negotiators are only a degree more accommodating these days.

But it matters most in the defense arena.

Japan claims its “severe fiscal condition,” “war renouncing constitution,” and “atom bomb experience” are unique and tie its hands – as if no other countries suffered or face similar challenges defending themselves. In this kind of atmosphere, more defense spending and improved Japanese Self-Defense Force capabilities are out of the question.

Astonishingly, American officials have typically accepted these excuses – leading to a dangerously distorted defense relationship.

But with China breathing down everybody’s necks it’s time for Japan to stop seeing itself as different. And so should we.