Friday, June 29, 2012

The Japan Traffic Safety Association

If you have operated a vehicle in Japan, there is a good chance that you have had some dealings with the Japan Traffic Safety Association (zenkoku kotsu anzen kyokai 全国交通安全協会) or some of its member groups. Since there aren't many English language resources available, let's take a closer look at this mysterious organization.

What is the JTSA?
Despite having a relatively innocuous sounding name, the Japan Traffic Safety Association (JTSA) actually quite an important "special public service foundation" (tokurei zaidan hojin 特例財団法人, or the Japan version of an NPO) operating with the permission of the National Police Agency. It is actually a larger umbrella group for smaller Prefectural Traffic Safety Associations which are in turn umbrella groups for local area and/or city Traffic Safety Associations.

The JTSA's stated goals are to promote traffic safety (duh), coordinate the National Traffic Safety Week (zenkoku kotsu anzen undo 全国交通安全運動), produce traffic safety education materials, hold the National Traffic Safety Conference, and so on.

The JTSA and its member groups also handle a lot of duties traditionally delegated to law enforcement such as driver license training, collecting dues for car parking registration, and so on. The exact nature of their involvement with local law enforcement differs by prefecture, but they often work very closely with law enforcement and can even incorporate active duty officers alongside regular staff.

So What Do They Really Do?
At least twice a year (usually in the fall and summer), you have probably noticed an inordinate amount of police officers, old folks, and soon-to-be-up-for-reelection politicians standing at intersections holding flags and even mini-roadblocks while others hand out "lets drive safely" tissue packets. This means it is Traffic Safety Week and for these 7 days the police will suddenly start caring about whether or not you blow through that red light. For all this, you have your local Traffic Safety Association to thank.

What is more, when you go to renew your Japanese driver license (check out our guide here) you are legally obliged to take a re-training course. This course is offered exclusively by your prefecture's Traffic Safety Association. As such, the bulk of your license renewal fee is actually payed as a class fee to the local TSA.

In my jurisdiction, the local area TSA also operates the traffic consultation desk at the police station and sells revenue stamps used for paying for police services. They also work with another NPO responsible for verifying parking spaces.

Some Problems
Now, if you think that being an ostensibly "non-profit group" that works hand-in-hand with the government might cause some conflicts of interest, then you are absolutely one hundred percent correct. With a little help from Japanese Wikipedia, let's find out where the TSA goes all wrong:
  • Amakudari (天下り)- Meaning literally "decent from heaven," amakudari is one of Japan's long-running political problems. It is the practice whereby well-connected politicians and bureaucrats in all levels of local and national government are awarded cushy jobs at industries that they used to regulate when they leave office--all while collecting fat pensions from that term in politics. It also refers to bureaucrats and politicians who establish dubious semi-official organizations that just happen to re-employ them when they retire... like, say, the TSA! I think you can see how the TSA's employing the same people who make the rules saying that you must pay to take a class from TSA to renew your license might cause a wee bit of conflicting interest.
  • Expenditures- This goes hand-in-hand with the amakudari problem. According to an investigation into the Hyogo Prefecture Traffic Safety Association by TBS Broadcasting, less than 20 percent of the association's budget was allocated to traffic safety activities. On the other hand, over 70 percent was allocated to paying employee salaries, over half of whom were "old boys," a polite euphemism for amakudari.
  • Money Collection- It seems that the Aichi Prefectural Traffic Safety Association got into some hot water with the courts back in 2006 due to the way it collected fees. Although membership in the association is strictly voluntary, the association was accused of making the membership fee seem admonitory by including it in prices for services at driving centers and police stations. Due to the court ruling, the National Police Agency advised prefectures to create separate windows at license centers and police stations.
So does your local TSA actually do any good? In this author's opinion, absolutely not. It is one of the more egregious examples of Japanese political amakudari in action and, to top it off, the TSA has rigged the system such that you have to utilize their services in order to continue driving legally. While the awareness building campaigns might have helped to prevent accidents here and there, the whole institution seems to be more of a retirement slush fun for public officials who are already entitled to hefty pensions. But, hey, that is just one man's opinion...

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