A New Japan

Todai Cliques and TEPCO

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A New Japan

Todai Cliques and TEPCO

Elite alumni networks in Japan have significant clout. What could it mean for the current crisis?

The University of Tokyo was founded in the late 19th century. It’s a leading research university in Japan and one of the nation's proudest assets. Interestingly, a unique social networking culture has developed around ‘Todai’, as it’s affectionately known, as well as in other top schools like it. But it’s a culture that may not be widely known about, despite its significant ramifications.

The elite social networks are known as gakubatsu, or school cliques, and they dominate both government posts and commercial enterprises across the country, even today. The ties formed through these cliques are so strong that even as other academic institutions have appeared, graduates of the oldest institutions like Todai continued to dominate society through nepotism and favouritism. In fact, Todai's pre-eminence is so great, that a separate term, called ‘todaibatsu’ has come into use to underscore Todai's preeminent influence.

I don’t mean to suggest any disrespect at all to Todai—it’s a highly respected institution whose graduates have made significant contributions to their fields. (Seven have been awarded the Nobel Prize.) But frankly speaking, these cliques are still a slap in the face of meritocracy.

There are two significant concerns raised by the presence of todaibatsu, given the current situation in Japan. First, how much does the existence of todaibatsu contribute to the perceived ineptitude of the Japanese government, as well as to the preservation of the bureaucratic status quo? English literature on the subject is somewhat sporadic, and there appear to be few absolutely damning conclusions that can be drawn. Still, there appears to be something of a consensus that the ranks of Japan's administrative elite are indeed dominated by University of Tokyo graduates and that the path into Japan's elite is jealously guarded by Todai graduates who protect their own. This, combined with the fact that there are very few lateral transitions into the bureaucracy, means it’s possible that non-Todai graduates are regularly sifted out of upward career trajectories through todaibatsu action, to preserve Todai's dominance in the bureaucracy and further entrench the university.

The implications for fairness and mobility in the Japanese bureaucracy are clearly far-reaching.

A second concern that arises is how todaibatsu has affected reporting over the current nuclear crisis. Several influential commentators on the crisis hail from Todai, while a number of TEPCO's own officers and directors are University of Tokyo graduates. There are also close ties between TEPCO and the Liberal Democratic Party, and reports have already been published about behind-the-scenes financial relationships between TEPCO executives and bureaucrats. As Japan's largest utility provider, TEPCO is also a member of the keidanren, or the Japan Business Foundation. Unsurprisingly, there are many University of Tokyo ties there, too. And that’s not to mention the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, which has oversight over nuclear safety standards in the country. You guessed it…

Considering this web of Todai connections in the upper echelons of Japanese society, and considering the penchant of alumni to protect their own, neutral observers could be forgiven for wondering if todaibatsu is affecting the way the whole nuclear crisis is being tackled and reported on. Are they really acting in the best interests of the public?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these cliques – utilized properly, they can be a means of lubricating operations and hastening action. But when it becomes evident that the cliques facilitate favouritism over meritocracy, then we start to have some problems.