Two Japanese government ministries have confessed to inflating the number of persons with disabilities they employ so as to meet a legal quota, with many more agencies suspected of padding data in the latest records management scandal to hit the country.
The practice, said to have lasted for over 40 years in some cases, is the latest dent in Japan's reputation for reliability which took a beating last year, following a spate of data-tampering cases by manufacturers like Kobe Steel, Mitsubishi Materials and Toray Industries, and carmakers such as Nissan and Subaru.
It might also undermine public trust in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's leadership as the head of government, going into a pivotal Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) poll next month that will determine if he stays as Japan's leader until 2021.
Last Friday, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications said they found irregularities in their records.
The labour ministry is conducting a probe to weed out culpable agencies, though ironically, it is also suspected to have doctored records to meet the very quota it administers.
By a law that took effect in 1976 to promote an inclusive society, government agencies must ensure that persons with disabilities account for at least 2.3 per cent of their headcount. This was raised to 2.5 per cent in April this year, higher than the 2.2 per cent for the private sector, in order that the government can set an example.
By the latest official statistics released in June, persons with disabilities - defined as those who hold disability certificates or medical rehabilitation handbooks - accounted for 2.5 per cent of the government last year. But, domestic media reports said last week, this employment rate is likely to fall to below 1 per cent at some ministries and agencies following the recount.
The Yomiuri Shimbun cited sources as saying that the government has been unable to raise the rate of employment for people with disabilities, largely because of Japan's notorious culture of long working hours. The sources added that this falsification might have been "commonplace".
That the government has also been found to be involved in data tampering, corporate governance experts have said, may suggest a systemic problem with record management in Japan.
But domestic media also quoted sources as saying the root of the current probe could be one of ignorance - or a "misunderstanding", as termed by the labour ministry.
The revelations were said to be sparked after inquiries this April by the ministries themselves to the labour ministry as to how employment rates of disabled people should be calculated
Regardless, there has been criticism of the government over double standards, as it has urged the private sector to hire more people with disabilities through fines, and naming and shaming companies that fail to meet the threshold.
Japan Council on Disability chief Katsunori Fujii told Kyodo News: "It is a big problem if the government has carried out the designation of people with disabilities arbitrarily. "If it has covered things up for over 40 years, it means the check-and-balance system was not functioning."