Photo/Illutration Eggs produced by Akita Foods Co. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The bribery scandal involving a former agriculture minister and an egg producing company has underscored the need to break the traditional cozy relationship between government and business, a long-standing, deep-rooted problem in Japan’s policymaking.

The Tokyo District Court on June 28 held the first hearing of the trial of Yoshiki Akita, a former top executive of Akita Foods Co., a major egg producing company in Hiroshima Prefecture. Akita is accused of bribing Takamori Yoshikawa, who was the farm minister from October 2018 to September 2019.

Both Akita and Yoshikawa have been indicted without arrest. The farm ministry has disciplined six officials who were wined and dined by Akita, including the top career bureaucrat in the ministry, for violating the ethics code.

An independent investigative committee set up by the ministry released a report in early June on its inquiry into the bribery scandal, but the document showed no solid commitment to clarifying the facts. The panel seems to have concluded before its probe that policy decisions were not influenced by the graft.

The report acknowledged that Akita asked Yoshikawa to help the poultry industry by ensuring the Japanese government would oppose an international organization’s proposal for animal welfare standards to reduce the stress of livestock.

The head of the egg producing firm also lobbied the former farm minister to make it easier for poultry farmers to receive loans from the government-related Japan Finance Corp., according to the report. But it nevertheless concluded that the farm ministry’s policies were not “distorted” as a result.

It is difficult to take what the report says at face value.

The document claims the ministry decided to oppose the new animal welfare standards before Akita made the request to Yoshikawa. But Akita has reportedly told prosecutors that he also handed cash to Koya Nishikawa, who served as farm minister from 2014 to 2015.

It has also been revealed that a senior ministry official dined with Akita twice before Yoshikawa took office.

These facts signal the possibility that the ministry’s policies had been influenced by its long-established cozy ties with the industry. But the report fails to delve into the suspicion.

The panel has also done a poor job of examining Japan Finance's records of lending to the industry for possible influencing by the ministry.

A meeting between Akita and a senior executive at the government-affiliated lender was arranged in response to a request from a former top farm ministry official who was entertained by the company on a luxury cruise ship, according to the report. Lending to Akita Foods was discussed on the occasion.

But the report makes no reference to whether Japan Finance has ever extended any dubious loan to the firm.

Many of the requests made by Akita to the farm ministry have been actually granted. This fact should not be taken lightly.

The ministry needs to bear in mind that it cannot regain public trust unless it clears up all the related allegations and suspicions. It has to continue looking into the scandal to answer remaining questions.

The levels of Japan’s livestock animal welfare are among the lowest in the world, according to the ratings by World Animal Protection, formerly the World Society for the Protection of Animals, an international nonprofit animal welfare organization.

But Japan has paid little attention to international criticism about its animal welfare standards as policies have been made under the collusive ties between the government and the livestock industry.

The independent panel’s report calls for reform of the process of making policies concerning the egg industry, pointing out it has “a structure liable to be influenced by lobbying from politicians and producers.”

The policymaking system of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is also insensitive to the voices of consumers.

The ministry’s traditional policy of keeping rice prices at high levels has contributed to declining rice consumption. Its lukewarm attitude toward restricting fish catches has caused depletion of fisheries resources.

The ministry should act swiftly to correct its producer-oriented policy stance, which it needs to recognize as one of its basic problems.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 29