[Viewpoint]Following each other’s pathsKohari Susumu, a professor of international relations at Shizuoka University in Japan, asked me, “Why do you think Lee Myung-bak still enjoys such high approval ratings?”
Susumu is an expert on Korean affairs in Japan, therefore, he must be well-informed about the recent developments in politics here, either through open sources such as the news media or his personal friends. Still, he asked me the question which he might have also asked others. And the word “still” in his question may imply that he is referring to various suspicions about Lee that have been raised by the pro-government political factions.
“Perhaps,” I said, “one of the reasons is that most Korean people are sick and tired of incompetent progressives. They might think they can tolerate one flaw in a person if he can manage the state’s affairs properly and revive the economy.”
With a smile, he said, “That sounds very interesting. It seems like Korea is following the way Japan went in the past, while Japan is following the way Korea went.”
His analysis was interesting, too.
I went to Japan last week. I stayed two days in Shizuoka and one day in Tokyo. Whenever I turned on television in my hotel room after a day of work, I could hear, almost every day, the angry voices of voters criticizing the government.
On the day I arrived in Japan, Takehiko Endo, the agriculture and fisheries minister, resigned from the cabinet.
It had been exposed that he accepted political funds illegally from a farm association. The news that a vice foreign minister had also tendered his resignation followed.
A news conference held by upper house lawmaker Yutaka Kobayashi, in his district of Yokohama, was also televised.
Two people from his campaign team were indicted on charges of window-dressing accounts of campaign funds.
Both Ichiro Kamoshita, the environment minister, and Yoko Kamitawa, the state minister for population issues and gender equality, had a hard time giving answers to journalists who asked about their falsified reports about political funds.
I had the feeling that the survival of the administration under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on the brink of collapse. I was right. Prime Minister Abe finally resigned on Wednesday.
The Japanese constituents were not angry only at the Abe cabinet or Japanese politicians. There were some other things as well. Japan’s commercial TV stations competitively reported special programs on the issue of pension misappropriation.
They reported that civil servants at social insurance agencies and local autonomous organizations that handle national pension premiums had embezzled large amounts of money from the pension fund for a long period of time, enraging the Japanese people.
Television stations reported in detail the amounts embezzled by different local autonomous organizations, showing their locations on the map.
Writers and entertainers who appeared on TV programs as panelists raised their voices in unison, saying, “How could they conceal such apparent crimes?”
The Japanese commercial TV stations, which used to air light programs that dealt with scandals in the entertainment world and showed little interest in serious topics, are no longer what they used to be.
The ethical standards that the Japanese people demand of Japanese politicians and civil servants have become so strict that they could almost be called severe.
In fact, the mistakes committed by some of the cabinet ministers and high-ranking civil servants have merely been the use of inappropriate receipts or payments to unauthorized receivers. They were not serious crimes, such as accepting bribes or embezzling political funds. But the voters are reluctant to forgive even minor mistakes.
Kizo Ogura, a Kyoto University professor and an expert on Korean affairs, also said that, as for the direction of the national policy, “Japan is following the way Korea went in the past.”
Unlike Abe’s predecessors, which have maintained Japan’s position in the international community under the color of its value-neutral Peace Constitution, the Abe administration stands on an ideology ― as did China, South and North Korea ― with the slogan, “The diplomacy which reveals Japan’s values,” as a Japanese monthly magazine commented in its latest edition.
Indeed, it seems Japan followed Korea’s path until some time ago. Japan gave up “udori kyuyuku,” or education that gives more freedom to students, for the reason that it lowered students’ academic ability. As a result, the number of hours that students spend in primary and middle school has increased for the first time since 1977.
Also, a discussion on the issue of reducing some 100,000, or 30 percent, of all civil servant posts, is underway in the economy and finance advisory committee of the Japanese government. The central government has already drastically reduced the amount of subsidies it gives to local governments.
On the contrary, Korea is imitating what Japan did in the past. Since President Roh Moo-hyun came into power, the number of civil servants has increased by 66,000. Whenever suspicions of corruption involving government officials have been raised, the president has thundered, “Such charges are outrageous.”
As if handing out free gifts, local governments hang out incentives worth tens of million dollars as tax benefits to induce state-run companies to their areas so they can build innovative cities. And the president openly pledges that he wants to see the plans for building innovative cities finalized by “breaking ground during his term of office and by driving a ‘big nail’ into those plans.”
Korea is going the opposite direction of Japan, which is trying to make its government organization leaner, apply stricter rules to officials, strengthen school education and emphasize the self-survival of local governments.
Which is more desirable?
Japan is following the path Korea took after bitter experiences and lessons learned from the country’s own past failures. But Korea’s move to follow in the path Japan took doesn’t seem due to any past lessons or enlightenment.
I think it is due to a way of thinking that wasting taxpayers’ money is acceptable because they lack a sense of responsibility and an awareness of the dangers involved in it.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun