Jim Armitage: It took a Brit to lay bare the state of Japan, but then its elite failed the test

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The Independent Online

Outlook The spectacular ability of Japan's cosy establishment to shoot itself in both feet rarely fails to amaze. After conducting the biggest cover-up of one of the biggest frauds in the country's history, the former bosses of the cameras giant Olympus managed to walk free from the Tokyo court yesterday morning. This despite the fact that they pleaded guilty, and despite justifiable demands from the prosecution that they serve up to five years' jail.

The case had become a test of the country's resolve to clean up the famously tight structure of its political, business and judicial elite. It failed that test dismally.

Michael Woodford, the British whistleblower chief executive who discovered that his boardroom colleagues were covering up a cancerous $1.7bn (£1.1bn) fraud, maintained a dignified silence on the decision. But this was a disastrous call from Judge Hiroaki Saito. A message to the outside world: Closed for Business.

Japan remains stuck through the looking-glass in a world where the career ceiling for women is at skirting board level, shareholders and bankers are tightly connected to the bosses of the companies they lend to, and politicians and the judiciary look after their own.

In its companies, once famous for listening to the innovative voices of the engineers on the factory floor, deference to one's seniors has become the watchword. Entrepreneurialism – the drive to start up new businesses with new technologies – seems a misnomer these days. One struggles to see from where this century's Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic, may come.

One such was Takafumi Horie, the young, Ferrari-driving, actress-dating entrepreneur, who created an internet powerhouse called Livedoor.

Bold, brash, individualistic, he was loathed by the establishment. Little surprise, then, that, unlike the conservatives at the summit of Olympus, he did end up in jail for illegally pumping up his share price. The heads of industry, including the media, could barely conceal their delight. Economies of the size of Japan these days rely on international blood to thrive, yet with the absence of the sacked Mr Woodford, you can count the number of western corporate leaders in Tokyo on one hand.

The economy is in a decades-long stagnation. Despite the belated, albeit-titanic QE programme, we should be cynical about the country's ability to impose meaningful reform on its labour markets while the conservative structures at the top of its institutions remain so entrenched.

Meanwhile, the US, China and South Korea take their samurai swords to Japan's former dominance of the electronics world.

Ironically, Mr Woodford was sacked in a country where the clubby boardroom structures mean executive oustings are far too rare and senior white-collar jailings almost unheard of.

Indeed, after yesterday's sentences, one is left wondering just what an establishment figure has to do to go to jail in this country.

Perhaps Mototaka Ikawa, whose four-year jail sentence was upheld a few days ago, provides an answer. The chairman of Daio Paper's crime? Taking £36m from his company and losing it on the baccarat tables of Macau.

Even Japan had to jail him.