Losing Face, Losing Faith

August 04, 1991|By JOHN E. WOODRUFF

TOKYO — Tokyo. -- For more than four decades since World War II, most Japanese have lived by certain articles of faith.

Education, they have believed, is the surest path to success -- in social as well as business life -- and it is equally open to all who can survive the "examination hell."

All Japanese, they have believed, are in essentially the same boat and in some way share common interests even with the huge corporations that have helped to lead the country from the ashes of World War II to become the world's second-largest economy.

The policeman, they have believed, is your friend and can be approached without fear.

Saving is a prime virtue, they have believed, and money in the bank is money in the bank.

The spring and summer of 1991 have been hard on all these articles of faith.

Each has been brought face to face with a contrary reality, as Japanese have witnessed a breathtaking series of scandals that has filled newspaper front pages and television newscasts since late April.

From industrial spies to billions of dollars in fake bank accounts, and from ringers taking university entrance exams to a billion dollars in brokers' paybacks to cover favored clients' investment losses, this has been the season when no certainty of Japanese life has seemed immune to scandal.

"For the Japanese public, the sight of contrite company presidents bowing in apology and of police leading away embarrassed executives has become almost a staple of the evening news," Yoshiaki Itoh wrote in the Nikkei Journal last week.

Some of the scandals -- the troubles of the Big Four securities brokers over Yakuza gangland connections and paybacks to favored clients, for example -- have made news around the world.

But the scandals have been too many and have come too fast for most of them to get full attention outside Japan.

In many cases, the scandals have forced people to gaze directly upon practices everyone suspected or even knew were widespread, but could ignore so long as they were not brought into the open.

For Japanese, perhaps more shocking even than the securities scandal has been the news that the integrity of the "examination hell" itself had been breached.

Admission exams at every stage of education, often starting with pre-school, have been the organizing principle around which Japanese parents have brought up four generations of children, sending them to pre-kindergarten "cram nurseries" and to years of night and weekend "cram schools."

So when the news broke that Meiji University, one of Japan's most prestigious, had uncovered a gang that made a business of sending ringers to take the admission test on behalf of applicants, it was days before anyone wanted to discuss anything else.

What made the news compelling -- and galling, for the millions of Japanese parents who had struggled through decades of their own lives and their children's to play the game straight -- was the fact that the sons of three ranking corporate executives and of one TV star had been among those who got into school without ever showing up at the examination hall.

"For us as Japanese parents," asked Kimiko Uehara, the mother of two junior high school boys, "we have to work so hard with our children for the examinations, and if we can't even believe in the examination system itself, what can we believe in?"

Certainly not that all Japanese, even big corporations, are in the same boat.

When the boat went under in a tidal wave of losses on the Tokyo Stock Exchange last summer, thousands of individual investors wrote agonized letters to newspapers and magazines, expressing disbelief that the system would let them lose so much of their life's savings.

Now, those same retired couples and young families saving to buy a house are digesting the news that indeed the system did not let everyone go down equally -- that when the boat went under, the captains of 17 securities houses threw $1.3 billion dollars worth of cash lifeboats to a few hundred big and favored investors, among them many of the country's most respected corporations.

It has not been lost on these small investors that one source of that cash was the commissions they themselves had paid the brokerage houses when they bought and sold securities.

The rage of millions of small investors has resounded through the society, reaching even into the leadership of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, where in calmer times campaign contributions usually give big businesses priority over smaller fry.

Several Japanese commentators have suggested that the investors' rage could improve Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu's long-shot chance of getting a second term when his first two years expire in October.

Chosen in 1989 from the middle ranks of the party's smallest faction, Mr. Kaifu's prime asset was that he was known as a political "Mr. Clean" when the LDP was deep in the Recruit stocks-for-favors scandal.

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