Opinion: Behind the Practice of Apology and Resignation in Japan

CEO of Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) Naomi Hirose bowed in the front of press. (Japan Times)

Indonesian netizens are rather easily swayed by the story of Japanese officials’ resignation due to scandals—be it political or personal. Photographs of those officials bowing down while apologizing in front of the press often compared to the attitudes of Indonesian officials who seem to be taking scandals in their stride. However, are such public apologies and resignations really that noble in the practice?

A Mere Lip Service

William Pesek, a senior journalist at Bloomberg, wrote that the practice of apology and resignation in Japan is driven by a culture of shame. Apology in Japan is more cosmetics in nature, lip service if you may, rather than an actual commitment to change mistakes.

The disaster at Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, which is managed by Tepco Corporation, is an accumulation of a corrupt culture in that company. Various regulations were breached without audit until the March 11 Tohoku earthquake exposed everything.

Tepco officials initially tried to minimize the scale of the disaster and had considered to evacuate the power plant’s technicians until they were pressured by the government. In front of the press, Tepco officials repeatedly apologized to the public. Yet, three years after the disaster, Pesek posed a question that prods at Japan’s sense of humanity: “Were there any Tepco officials who were legally prosecuted for their negligence?”

Corruption Reigns On as Whistleblowers Cast Aside

Not long after the Tepco scandal, Japan was once again shocked by a corporate scandal, this time an accounting scandal at Olympus. In October 14, 2011, Michael Woodford was suddenly fired from his position as the president director of Olympus after having taken the office for merely two weeks. Woodford, a British national, had exposed tobashi, a practice of concealing the losses in the company’s bookkeeping.

Tobashi within Olympus was not minuscule: as much as 1.5 billion dollars were embezzled, some of which were given to criminal organization. Not long after taking the president director office, Woodford called on accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to conduct a forensic audit. However, instead of having the report accepted by the board of directors, Woodford was dismissed with “a difference in the style of leadership” as the reasoning. His successor, Shuichi Takayama, also put the blame on Woodford.

The fate of Olympus gets a bit better, though: the new president director, Takayama, eventually apologized in front of the public in November 8, 2011. And in February 2012, the police scooped up a number of ex-officials of Olympus. However, following the Olympus scandal, were there any attempts from the Japanese government to reform corporate governance so that the same problem would not be repeated? Unfortunately, there were none. The Toshiba scandal four years later would be the mark in history that demonstrates the lack of government action to reform corporate governance.

Cronies and Moral Hazzard

Some readers may have watched the Japanese drama Hanzawa Naoki. Starring Masato Sakai, the drama tells the story of Naoki Hanzawa, a manager of a certain bank, confronted with the shady business practices of his superiors. In the last episode, the director of the bank, Owada, was forced to apologize while kneeling and being shamed in front of the board directors. However, instead of receiving a compensation for saving the company, Hanzawa was demoted to a different position. As a curious note, the Olympus scandal is rumored to be a source of inspiration for the drama.

If we take a closer look a the structure of Japanese government, a minister is a political position: they have no authority to change or reform the ministries that they are positioned into. A Japanese minister cannot act as Susi Pudjiastuti, (current Indonesian Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries) did to take down illegal foreign fishermen, or as Ignatius Jonan (current Indonesian Minister of Transportation) did to totally reform the mentality of the civil servants in Ministry of Transportation.

The practice of a minister or senior official resigning due to their mistakes and negligence might be seen as a nice thing because they seem to be willing to admit their mistakes to the public. However, are such apologies make any significant change afterwards? Probably not.

That said, it’s good to apologise and resign yourself: what’s not is doing that merely to save the face and reputation, which is happening.

By Kevin W | Translated by Paksi Pradipta

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