Japan's Guardians Should Guard The People

Blunders, bad judgments, and missed opportunities on the part of Japan's bureaucrats have left ordinary Japanese feeling enraged with their banking system, betrayed by their educational institutions, and embarrassed by their telephone and cable-TV infrastructure. But the latest revelations of bureaucratic incompetence have broken Japanese hearts. In recent weeks, officials at the Health Ministry have been releasing shocking documents to the courts. These prove that as early as 1983, health authorities knew that untreated blood products being introduced into Japan might carry the deadly HIV virus. The officials at the time had two choices: ban untreated blood and import supplies treated by foreign companies using superior technology; or maintain the flow of untreated blood, while Japanese medical companies rushed to duplicate foreign treatment techniques. In the name of protecting private companies, the authorities chose the latter course. Now, as many as 2,000 Japanese hemophiliacs and other patients may pay with their lives. There is enormous outrage in Japan over the decision. Even normally uncritical television newscasters express revulsion for the guardians of public safety who sold out to corporate interests.

There will also be financial costs: Legal settlements by a half-dozen Japanese and foreign drug companies with the victims' families could reach $2 billion. But no penalties can prevent incidents like this from recurring as long as bureaucrats equate their personal interests and loyalties with those of the companies they regulate. Health officials need to be reminded as to the true nature of their mission: protecting human health, not companies. The Ministry must stop seeding drug and hospital supply companies with retired bureaucrats--a practice known as amakudari, or descent from heaven, which is widespread in all Japanese ministries. This pernicious practice blurs the lines between corporate interest and public safety issues and invites disaster. Finally, the Japanese people should insist that important Ministry records be made easily accessible to the public or to auditors with no ties to the Ministry. If some simple checks were in place, authorities could never have hidden missing records, and the collusion between company officials and civil servants might have come to light more quickly.

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