Philip Patrick Philip Patrick

Why no one in Japan is talking about the Fujitsu Post Office scandal

Credit: Getty images

‘They are a national disgrace.’ That was the response of a Japanese friend when I asked for her opinion on Fujitsu, the Japanese company at the heart of the recent UK Post Office IT scandal. But her answer was not in any way coloured by the company’s involvement in the affair (they supplied the dodgy software), of which she knew absolutely nothing. But then why should she? There has not been a single news item in the Japanese media. And ITVx is not yet available in Asia.

The Japan Times, for example, found space yesterday for a piece on the ‘world’s oldest pyramid’ in Indonesia (which may in fact not be) and a piece on the viability of the Panama Canal. But there was none for a major international scandal that could see one of Japan’s corporate titans humiliated on the world stage and forced to pay millions in compensation.

Does cronyism (the media is an essential part of the system) entirely explain the lack of interest?

When I brought my friend up to speed on what appears to have happened in the UK she wasn’t in the least surprised. Her assessment had been based on Fujitsu’s domestic track record.

In 2002, Fujitsu was involved in a story related to faulty ATMs that resulted in 2.5 million delayed debits. Then, in 2020, Fujitsu software supporting the operations of the Tokyo stock exchange failed causing the loss of a full day’s trading. The company’s president Takahito Tokita apologised profusely and took a 50 per cent pay cut for four months.

There was more contrition last June when 123 municipalities had to suspend the operation of a Fujitsu-based system to issue residence cards to holders of the country’s ‘My Number’ ID card. This followed a serious problem the previous month when machines in convenience stores issuing municipal certificates malfunctioned. The June problems were eventually blamed on those from May not being properly fixed.

You might then have expected some interest in the UK story from the Japanese media. But not a bit of it: as with the recent sexual abuse story concerning one of Japan’s most influential impresarios Johnny Kitagawa, it was left to the international press, and particularly (credit where credit is due) the BBC to do some digging.

In an article from the BBC website, several former Fujitsu employees commented on the dysfunctional culture at the company. Apparently, Fujitsu is extremely reluctant to hire full-time high-quality software technicians for short-term projects. Instead, it relies on low-paid operatives in outsourced companies with the inevitable erratic and inconsistent results.

The BBC cites Satoshi Nakajima who worked at NTT (Japan’s premier telecommunications company) before becoming a foundational member of Microsoft. Satoshi characterises Fujitsu as a zombie company staggering on thanks to its close relationship with the government. The cozy relationship ensures its continual profitability despite the ossified company culture and inadequate tech capabilities.

Cynicism abounds here as to that relationship and especially how the company was chosen to handle the massive My Number project. In 2015, Japan Press Weekly reported that firms selected for the project, including Fujitsu, had made donations to the Liberal Democrat party totally 240 million yen (approximately £1.3 million) over the previous five years. Fujitsu was responsible for 60 million yen (£330,000) of this according to the article.

Whether that made a difference or not is unknown, but it plays into the idea of the cozy back-scratching relationship between the corporate world and government officials. For example: it has long been the tacitly accepted practice for retiring officials from government agencies and ministries to receive richly remunerated jobs at major companies – for services rendered. It even has a rather poetic name ‘amakudari’ (descent from heaven).

Companies like Fujitsu offer especially soft landings. In 1997, the deputy governor of the Bank of Japan (BOJ) Fukui Toshihiko resigned after a bribery scandal involving senior officials at the bank. He settled nicely at a Fujitsu research institute, where he allegedly made a fortune, before ascending back to heaven and governorship of the BOJ in 2003.

But does cronyism (the media is an essential part of the system) entirely explain the lack of interest? Absolutely no one it seems, including a former company president, who had worked at the firm for four decades and answered ‘Horizon? What’s Horizon?’ when asked about the story by the BBC, seems to have any knowledge of or interest in the story unfolding in the UK.

Politics Professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University Koichi Nakano acknowledges the closeness of Fujitsu to the government but puts more blame on the media and to an extent, the public. ‘In general, Japanese media is timid in holding the government to account but even worse when it comes to investigating corporate wrongdoing, unless it affects the Japanese customers directly. There is only so much foreign news, and the incentive for informing the blissfully ignorant Japanese public about a foreign scandal that would only antagonise an important sponsor just isn’t there,’ he told me.

And there we have it: as someone once said, the first step in understanding something is wanting to understand it. That desire, in the case of the Post Office IT scandal, has recently been awoken and energised in the UK. It still appears to be lacking in Japan.