Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso. This version has been updated.
Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University Japan, is the author of “Japan.”
Pity Carlos Ghosn. Japanese prosecutors have denied bail to the jailed former Nissan chief executive, extending his two months in pretrial detention where he is subject to up to eight hours of interrogation a day without access to legal counsel. By wearing him down psychologically, prosecutors are trying to coerce the Franco-Brazilian-Lebanese executive into signing a confession drawn up in Japanese, a language he isn’t fluent in. Sadly, this display of “hostage justice” — you only walk if you implicate yourself — is one of many developments (including the resumption of commercial whaling) that have recently battered Japan’s reputation. But surely no other issue has done more to harm Brand Japan and make it an outlier among the Group of Seven nations of advanced industrial democracies based on the rule of law.
From the time of his “perp walk” in handcuffs as he was escorted off his private jet until he appeared in court with a rope around his waist, the once-lionized savior of Nissan has been relentlessly vilified. He has been “prosecuted” by a cascade of leaks in the media that make his conviction appear inevitable. Indeed, less than 1 percent of defendants are acquitted, despite qualms in the legal community and civil society organizations about the extent of false confessions extracted under duress.
By global standards, the former chief executive of one of the world’s most profitable car company was not overpaid, but by Japanese standards, he was, and that’s the yardstick authorities are applying to his case. The prosecution’s apparent criminalization of deferred compensation has sent shock waves through Tokyo’s expatriate executive community, because it is standard practice. It’s not easy to generate sympathy for alleged white-collar criminals, but Japan has managed to do so.
The puritanical zeal exhibited in the Ghosn case may play well to the domestic audience, which is apparently thrilled by the takedown of a greedy gaijin (foreigner). Yet no such enthusiasm was evident in a number of recent Japanese corporate scandals such as Olympus (cooking the books), Takata (dangerous air bags) or Tokyo Electric Power (Fukushima fiasco). The palace coup staged by Nissan executives is attributed to unhappiness with plans for a merger with Renault but also conveys a whiff of xenophobia. This high-profile burning at the stake makes Japan look like a banana republic where the law is arbitrarily applied. If the case is so strong, why not try it in court, rather than in the media, and stop with this medieval practice of browbeating confessions?
Ghosn is also accused of submitting falsified documents. That, to be sure, is a serious offense. Yet last year prosecutors decided against indicting bureaucrats for tampering with documents submitted to the Japanese parliament that exonerated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a scandal involving a sweetheart land deal. Double standards?
Other dubious practices have also dented Japan’s reputation. Ghosn’s case was recently overshadowed by the scandal surrounding a popular men’s magazine called Spa!, which rated universities by their female students’ sexual availability and offered strategies for seducing and/or coercing them into sex at parties.
At the same time, we learned about a young pop star who drew her management firm’s ire by complaining publicly about an assault. Incredibly, the victim, Maho Yamaguchi, was forced to apologize at an event for “causing trouble.” This ritualized humiliation drew back the curtain on the larger issue of practices in the Japanese entertainment world. In J-Pop, this means infantilizing women to cater to certain male fantasies.
These stories speak to the wider issue of widespread misogyny in patriarchal Japan, where the #MeToo movement briefly gained momentum with an exposé of the administrative vice finance minister, who used his power to prey on young female reporters. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso alleged it must have been a honey trap and then lamely pointed out that sexual harassment is not a criminal offense in Japan. Abe likes to grandstand on “womenomics” (his raft of policies designed to bring more women into the workforce), but women remain marginalized in government (only one cabinet minister), corporate management (less than 10 percent) and the job market (where most work in non-regular positions). And over the summer, we discovered that women aspiring to become doctors have points deducted from their entrance exam scores simply because they’re women. It turns out that one medical school’s enrollment in entering classes is capped at 30 percent.
The reputational damage is escalating as France is now investigating bribery charges related to Japan’s effort to secure the 2020 Summer Olympics. What can justify a “consulting” payment made to Black Tidings, a firm linked to a man banned for life from international sports, and whose father is under investigation for fixing the Rio Olympics? These charges hang as clouds of reproach over the games and Japan, Inc.
And let’s not even mention the cabinet minister in charge of cybersecurity who has never surfed the Internet (let alone used email), or Japan’s long-standing refusal to countenance same-sex marriage. Alas, the old, conservative, male elite that still dominates Japanese society is betraying Brand Japan along with the aspirations of women and young Japanese.