Where does the buck stop? Japan's 'sontaku' clouds accountability in school scandal threatening Abe

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso (right) attend an upper house budget committee session of parliament in Tokyo on March 8, 2018.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso (right) attend an upper house budget committee session of parliament in Tokyo on March 8, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (Reuters) - Figuring out who is to blame in a widening political scandal that threatens Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is being complicated by a practice known as"sontaku", which loosely translates as "following unspoken orders".

Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso are under fire after the ministry released altered documents related to the discounted sale of state-owned land to a school operator with ties to Abe's wife, raising the possibility of a cover-up.

Abe has denied wrongdoing by himself or his wife and Aso has denied instructing any cover-up.

Strictly speaking, that could be true if the officials involved in the land deal and altering the related documents engaged in "sontaku", by attempting to surmise their superiors'wishes and acting without explicit directions.

"The invoking of implicit expectations is a wonderful way to shirk responsibility," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.

"Superiors can say, 'I didn't order it,' and those lower down can say, 'I'm following orders,' so the buck stops nowhere."

WHAT IS "SONTAKU"?

The word's original meaning is to "conjecture, surmise or speculate" and it has been around a long time, though rarely used in ordinary conversation.

 

The term appeared in a passage of ancient Chinese poetry and originally meant the ability to see through someone's evil purposes, the Asahi newspaper said.

 

When octogenarian Emperor Akihito in 2016 said publicly he feared his age and health would make it hard to fulfil his duties and mentioned the year 2018, listeners "surmised" he wanted to abdicate this year. There was no negative connotation.

 

Last year, however, "sontaku" entered the spotlight after the scandal broke over the land sale to the school operator, whose head at the time, Yasunori Kagoike, told reporters he did not think there had been direct peddling of influence, but rather "sontaku".

Chosen as "word of the year" by two publishers last year,"sontaku" has acquired a more negative connotation because of its link to the scandal.

WHY DOES "SONTAKU" MATTER?

If officials who signed off on the deal or altered related documents were engaging in "sontaku", it could be hard to prove their superiors did anything wrong, at least in legal terms.

"Abe is a strong leader, so bureaucrats, without being ordered directly, did various things - dishonest and maybe illegal," said a ruling coalition lawmaker who declined to be identified speaking on a sensitive topic.

"But as long as Abe gave no direct order, this will end as 'sontaku'," he said.

"There is a difference between legal, political and ethical responsibility."

Aso is under pressure to quit, however, even if he gave no direct order, as he oversees the ministry.

Whether Abe wins a third term as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in September, or is forced to step down sooner, will depend on whether, and how far, his support falls.

IS "SONTAKU" JUST JAPANESE?

The Abe government's tight control of top appointments may have boosted the incentive for bureaucrats to engage in"sontaku", although employees everywhere try to anticipate their bosses' wishes.

"It's not something unfamiliar to people working anywhere else who want to get ahead and curry favour with those above,"Kingston said.

"But in Japan, it's developed to a higher art form."