Banks and businesses long have spiced up the lives of Japan's bureaucrats with presents - luxurious dining and entertainment, trips to swanky resorts, gift certificates, even cash and real estate.
But a bribery scandal rocking the powerful Finance Ministry is intensifying calls for what critics say is still a new idea for Japan: government ethics laws."Japan's bureaucracy has grown too big, and we have nothing to oversee it," said Toshiaki Takahashi, a lawyer who is leader of a citizen campaign to keep a closer eye on government.
Government agencies already have in-house ethical guidelines. But ethics proponents - and now even top officials - say more is needed to clean up the system.
A government panel is expected to submit ethics legislation to Parliament by June. Members of the committee, named by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto earlier this month, are reluctant to talk specifics.
Critics of the system say several elements are needed:
-Specified penalties for ethics violations.
-Disclosure of bureaucrats' assets and gifts.
-An independent review board.
-Greater public airing of how public funds are used.
Long-ingrained habits will be hard to break, though.
Japan's government plays a pivotal role in business and wields a powerful array of regulations, so good business means winning official support. Match that with the Japanese tradition of gift-giving as a way of smoothing relations, and you have a system susceptible to influence-peddling.
But the scandal is not just about unseemly behavior. It goes to the core of what many people say is wrong with Japan: chummy relations between government and industry that have distorted the economy, preserved inefficient ways of doing business and sapped the nation's credibility.
Japan's banking system is overburdened with debt left over from the speculative bubble economy of the 1980s, the economy is stagnant and bankruptcy debts last year were the highest since World War II.