free web stats Transcript of the Japan Considered Podcast for March 30, 2007


March 30, 2007; Volume 03, Number 12

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Post-World War Two Relations Between Japan’s Politicians and Bureaucrats
Dissatisfactions Develop
“Administrative Reform” Employed as an Offensive Political Tool
Prime Minister Abe’s Commitment to “Administrative Reform.”
Specifics of Watanabe’s Plan
Response to these Administrative Reform Proposals
The Likely Fate of the Abe-Watanabe Administrative Reform Proposals
Concluding Comments

Good Morning from Beautiful Sesquicentennial State Park in the Midlands of South Carolina. It’s Friday again. And you are listening to Volume 03, Number 12, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Yes, you heard it correctly. Today’s program is being created and recorded in the midst of one of South Carolina’s most beautiful state parks. Our “Little Tin House,” is doing double-duty as the Japan Considered Project studio. From every window, I can see blooming dogwood among the pines. And many other kinds of trees and plants that have been preserved here for visitors’ enjoyment.

You may notice a slight difference in the audio. This elderly laptop computer and headset aren’t able to record quite the quality mp3 file that the home machine can produce. Though Audition 2.0 runs here with no difficulty. You also may hear birds singing in the background. Or the wind in the trees. Filtering all that out is beyond my technical competence. And you may well enjoy it!

This week has been exciting again in Japan. Both for domestic politics and for international relations. Campaigns are in full swing for the unified local elections we discussed last week. With the to-ing and fro-ing in the national media one would expect during such contests. When there are genuine contests! Which, again as we discussed last week, we have a few of this time around.

The political media’s search for clues to the outcome of the mid-July Upper House elections also adds to the attention and excitement. Nothing really new. But it’s interesting to watch the electoral strategies of the LDP and the DPJ unfold in anticipation of the April 8th election. That’s one poll that won’t be jiggered to suit the political objectives of its sponsor! More on this next week.

Japan’s international affairs too have been interesting to watch this week. Much of the news coverage has focused, directly and indirectly, on preparations for Chinese Premier Wen’s visit to Tokyo. He’s scheduled to arrive early next month. Statements of optimistic expectations from both governments have been encouraging.

Though in addition, we’ve seen expressions of concern over the rate of increase of China’s military expenditures. The “lack of transparency” in China’s military planning. The difficulty China’s and Japan’s negotiators have had “making genuine progress” on their disagreement over exploitation of the East China Sea’s natural gas reserves. Concern over Japan’s decision to upgrade the Defense Agency to full military status. As well as continuing discussion within Japan – and around the world – of the “Comfort Women” issue.

That seems to have replaced the Yasukuni Shrine Visit issue as primary symbol of Asian concern over Japan’s memory of World War Two. And what to do about it. And, indeed, even the Yasukuni Shrine issue itself has popped up again. With reports on meetings of the bilateral committee of scholars established to achieve consensus on the war memory issue. And “newly discovered” documents on government involvement in enshrinement of convicted war criminals. None of this extraordinary, or even unexpected.

We’ve discussed all of this before. Both specific events and the larger significance of those events. So this week, I’ve decided to focus on an issue at least as important. But one that has received very little coverage in Japan’s political press. Relative to its importance, that is. And virtually no coverage in the English language press.

“Administrative reform.” Yes, yes, I know. Sounds about as exciting as watching sweet corn sprout in the garden. But it really is significant, longer-term, for the way Japan’s governmental system operates. And even for the way Japan conducts its international relations.

So, this week we’ll devote most of our time together defining what we actually mean by “administrative reform,” and how it’s been used in the past. Then, we’ll consider the Abe Administration’s efforts to implement those reforms. And why we’ve heard so little about them during the past five months.

Post-World War Two Relations Between Japan’s Politicians and Bureaucrats

The relationship between elected government officials and their appointed bureaucratic subordinates has been one of the most intensely studied issues in Japanese politics. Subordinates, at least, as constitutionally defined.

Japan's post-World War Two National Constitution in a stroke shifted "sovereignty" from the Emperor to "the people." Which put the elected representatives of these newly- sovereign people, assembled in Parliament, at the very top of the governmental pyramid. Responsible for determining government policies and objectives. And for supervision of the bureaucrats they appointed to implement those policies and objectives.

Japan's appointed senior administrators could no longer claim, as Servants of the Emperor, authority on their own. Each ministry and governmental agency was headed by a Minister who had been appointed by the prime minister. Who, in turn, had been elected by majority vote of the Lower House of Parliament. Or the Diet. Clear. Even simple. And indisputably democratic.

However, in politics, nothing is ever that simple. Japan was given a democratic constitution by its Allied Occupiers. But efficiency is, at best, a secondary virtue of democratic government. One might even argue that as meaningful participation in government is broadened to include more of a state's population, the less efficient the system becomes.

Immediate post-World War Two Japan, however, could little afford inefficient government. And everyone knew it. Japan faced the overwhelming task of economic recovery. And then of rapid economic growth. With a large, expectant, population. And very little in the way of resources. Those limited resources had to be used as efficiently as possibly. You can see the problem, I'm sure.

So, Japan's national-level higher civil service continued to assume responsibilities for formulation and implementation of government policies with only general supervision by their elected political masters. Ministers were expected to facilitate the work of their ministries, represent their ministries' interests within Japan's electoral political world. And in general, to steer clear of “political interference” in the machinery of government. As it was conducted by Japan's talented, reliable, and highly qualified professional bureaucrats.

Some observers even questioned postwar Japan’s commitment to democratic government, given this state of affairs. But Japan's attentive public seemed content with how their governmental system worked. They repeatedly re-elected parliaments with LDP majorities in free elections. Even as that Party collaborated in maintenance of the governmental system that afforded appointed bureaucrats considerable influence and discretion.

Dissatisfactions Develop

That is, until Japan's efforts to achieve economic recovery, and then rapid economic growth, and finally widely-shared world-class prosperity, had succeeded. And had become recognized by Japan’s attentive public as “normal.”

Thereafter, it was more difficult for Japan's government to maintain public approval on their record of economic accomplishment alone. Japan’s communications media, and significant elements of Japan's attentive public, became increasingly critical of the negative by-products of a long-serving majority political party. And the mutually beneficial relationships that had developed over the years between career bureaucracies and private sector interests. Relationships that were maintained, according to these critics, at the expense of the “public” interest. Bid-rigging, selective implementation of regulations on business, untoward political funding, and especially the abhorrent “amakudari.” A practice through which retiring senior bureaucrats were forced on private and semi-public corporations after their retirement. As a cost of continuing to do business with the government. With predictable results. 

Such dissatisfaction was hardly new, of course. The LDP’s political opposition had been complaining about it for years. The LDP’s response, “Administrative Reform,” had become a well-accepted objective of incoming cabinets for as long as I can remember.

“Administrative Reform” Employed as an Offensive Political Tool

But by the 1980s, “administrative reform” had achieved greater public appeal than it had in the past. Its support base had broadened. It had had grown beyond convenience as a defensive political ploy. And had developed more potential for the attraction and maintenance of political support. So, naturally, we heard more about it.

I vividly recall the way Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone embraced administrative reform, and how he used it to increase, and then to maintain, his public approval ratings. He wasn’t the first. But I think it fair to say he was the first to use it that effectively.

Some years later, Junichiro Koizumi recognized the political potential of administrative reform. When it’s properly defined and properly explained to Japan’s attentive public. Koizumi won the LDP presidency, and therefore the premiership, on the basis of broad public approval. Not, as had most of his predecessors, through agreement of the LDP’s faction leaders to support his candidacy with the votes of their faction members. We’ve talked a lot on this program about the importance of this difference for Koizumi’s conduct of the premiership.

To maintain that public approval, Koizumi promised to reform the LDP, and Japan’s national bureaucracy as well. He actually made some progress. He’s best known for those measures that most inconvenienced the cozy relationships between LDP faction leaders, and the private-sector and bureaucratic interests that supported them. Especially his relentless attack on Japan’s postal system.

We don’t have time today to review Koizumi’s administrative reforms. Our focus is on Prime Minister Abe’s efforts. Though it’s fair to say much of Abe’s current agenda derives from objectives first articulated by Koizumi.

Prime Minister Abe’s Commitment to “Administrative Reform.”

Shinzo Abe has been promoting administrative reform at least since his days as chief cabinet secretary for Prime Minister Koizumi. He included mention of it in his first policy speech to the Diet, on September 29th, last year. He repeated much the same thing in his January 26th Diet speech, this year. Though both times, “administrative reform” received nowhere near the media attention that more politically sensitive constitutional revision and international relations issues received.

In both speeches Abe emphasizes the importance of reducing government waste and inefficiency. Creating a “muscular,” rather than “fat,” government. To that end, Abe proposed a reduction in central government personnel. Specifically, elimination of 19,000 jobs within five years! He also proposed reform of Japan’s civil service system. Another proposal sure to raise the antennae, if not the hackles, of Japan’s powerful bureaucrats, ministries, and the politicians who defend their interests. This reform, Abe said, would revise bureaucratic promotion criteria to emphasize ability rather than longevity, or time in grade. And, he promised to introduce genuinely effective limitations on “amakudari,” and the government-private collusive behavior that practice had spawned. Again, all of this was reported by Japan’s political journalists at the time. But not prominently. And little wonder. Nearly every prime minister solemnly promises to pursue “administrative reform” when entering office. Hardly news.

Abe’s early administrative reform efforts were stymied by the resignation late last year of his first state minister for administrative reform and regional revitalization. A key position in the new Cabinet, that Abe gave to Genichiro Sata. A tireless campaigner for Abe during his battle for the LDP presidency. But Sata became the first of the office expense “sloppy bookkeeping” targets we discussed at the time. Forced to resign before it became clear just how widespread abuse of the “office expense” political finance loophole had become.

An ambitious, but prudent, senior LDP politician might be excused for considering the administrative reform portfolio too dangerous to accept! Failure to accomplish anything significant would not soon be forgotten. But vigorous pursuit of genuinely meaningful reforms would instantly unite some of Japan’s most politically powerful institutions and individuals against the overly ambitious reformer. A difficult position indeed. One had better be a neat bookkeeper!

Abe found Sata’s replacement, however, in Yoshimi Watanabe. We discussed Watanabe on the program at the time of his appointment. He’s been uncharacteristically restrained in his public appearances since that appointment. But Watanabe produced the outline of what appears to be a “muscular” administrative reform proposal for discussion by the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy at their March 18th meeting. Watanabe’s proposals appeared to go well beyond “good government” platitudes masquerading as genuine administrative reform.

Specifics of Watanabe’s Plan

As first outlined for the Kantei’s influential Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy on the 18th of this month, and then presented in more concrete form to the same group on the 27th, Watanabe’s proposals include a number of potentially significant reforms.

It’s important to recognize right from the start that chances for implementation of the whole package are remote. I’d say impossible. But if Abe and Watanabe are able to implement only one or two of their more important proposals, they will have made significant progress. Progress, that is, as evaluated from the perspective of those who believe Japan’s elected political representatives should be more genuinely responsible for policy formulation. Supervision of the bureaucracy’s efforts to implement those policies. And approve the cutback in the autonomy now enjoyed by Japan’s higher civil servants such a change naturally would require.

Most significant, I think, in the plan proposed to the Economic and Fiscal Policy on the 27th, is commitment to meaningful reform of the Amakudari system within three years. Bureaucratic “Amakudari,” and its attendant evils, are well-known to Japan’s attentive public. We’ve talked before on this program about the increasing number of high-profile prosecutions of public works big-rigging, for example. And publicity given other examples of the negative consequences thought to result from collusive relationships between government agencies and private providers of services paid for by the government. Amakudari, the argument goes, promotes those collusive relationships. And with some justification!

Specifically, the administrative reform plan proposes elimination of ministry officials seeking post-retirement jobs for senior retiring bureaucrats. While recognizing that senior career officials who retire in their 50s are bound to seek post-retirement employment.

This has long been recognized as a problem. In fact, a “Human Resource Agency” was established in April of 2000 within the Internal Affairs Ministry to provide an alternative to the traditional individual ministry-operated system. According to a recent Asahi Shimbun report, some 700 officials have registered with that Agency since its creation. And 99 jobs were found. But only one retiring official accepted the job offered by the Agency. Because, defenders of the Agency argue, the ministries have continued their own efforts to place their own retiring senior officials.

Abe and Watanabe propose creation of a new “human resources body,” or bodies, that will be given responsibility for placement of all retiring senior bureaucrats. Details are still vague. Such as recruitment of staff for the new body, or bodies. Will they be bureaucrats now serving in other ministries? If so, won’t that create obvious conflicts of interest? And who will provide overall supervision of the new organization, or organizations? The Cabinet? Hmmm. I’ve yet to see the text of the full proposal. But these are difficult questions. The one thing Watanabe and Abe emphasized at the meeting on the 27th was the absolute prohibition of ministries themselves negotiating post-retirement jobs for their own retiring officials.

This all was important. But Abe and Watanabe didn’t end there. They also proposed raising the mandatory retirement age for bureaucratic employment. Hoping that would reduce pressure on senior officials who had been pushed into retirement by the lock-step time-in-grade promotion system to find lucrative post-retirement jobs. And, as mentioned a moment ago, increasing the importance of merit and ability for promotion. Which means reducing reliance on time-in-grade, or time served. This too has been mentioned before. But never really implemented.

If that’s not enough, Watanabe’s program proposes opening the application process for senior bureaucratic positions to officials outside the specific ministry. Officials from any ministry could apply for positions in any other ministry, according to this change. Even from the private sector! At least for 10% of the jobs open, at the beginning. This too borders on the revolutionary, when it comes to changes in personnel policies. And would, I believe, require revision of the National Public Service Law. Talk about a political mountain to climb!

Response to these Administrative Reform Proposals

Response to the proposed changes has been immediate and intense. As expected. And, they will only intensify as the weeks and months go by. In direct proportion to the vigor and sincerity with which Watanabe and Prime Minister Abe push their plans toward implementation.

This opposition will come from at least three directions. First, obviously, are the bureaucracies and bureaucrats themselves. No bureaucrat approves change. Unless, that is, it’s incremental, is under his or her own direction, and it increases his or her responsibilities, budgets, and subordinate personnel. Usually in inverse order. No bureaucrat in their right mind would approve “political meddling” with something as fundamental – even sacred – as his or her terms of employment. Including post-retirement employment! Effective control over promotions and assignments has been rightfully considered as essential to the maintenance of “good government,” independent of political meddling. And, to paraphrase Aunt Augusta, we all know what comes of political meddling! So, senior bureaucrats are bound to oppose these reforms. Though most of their opposition will come under the radar, in the dark. Given their constitutional subordination to their political masters. 

The second powerful source of opposition – perhaps the most powerful, when all is said and done – will come from senior members of the Liberal Democratic Party. One might reasonably expect all elected officials to celebrate any effort to enhance their role in Japan’s government. And some surely will. But not all. This LDP opposition, I expect, will come from two sources. The first will be those senior politicians who have made a good thing of the relationships they have developed with particular ministries or agencies. And thereby, with the private-sector “clients” of those ministries and agencies. Agriculture, construction, education, even national defense. The list goes on and on.

In past years they were labeled “Zoku Giin.” Though we haven’t heard as much of that term for the past few years as we once did. They remain, though. And many have maintained their personal and political support relationships with their ministries and agencies. Many of these “zoku giin,” or former “zoku giin,” can be relied upon to take up the cause of their ministry or agency. To defend its integrity against the barefaced political meddling being planned by the current cabinet. It won’t be long before we hear about “bureaucrat bashing” in Japan’s political press. Maybe even in English!

These senior LDP officials, in contrast to their bureaucratic constituents, can – and will – publicly oppose the administrative reforms proposed by the Abe Cabinet. In fact, they already have begun to do so. They are likely to be joined by the LDP’s anti-Abe contingent as well, in opportunistic alliance. Counseling caution. Recommending extension of implementation time frames. Warning against over-concentration of power in the Kantei. And so on. We’ve only seen the beginning, however.

A third source of opposition – again, as with the bureaucrats themselves –will be more subtle and indirect. It will come from the private-sector interests that have benefited for many decades from their cozy relationships with Japan’s bureaucracy. Large contractors, for example. And other providers of expensive services paid for by the government, and approved by the bureaucracies. These companies and corporate associations that have benefited from the relationships they have developed over the decades will only grudgingly face the genuine competition and market pressure that will result from the administrative reform changes proposed. So they can be expected to join the chorus of criticism we hear warming up in the wings.

The Ministry of Finance is likely to become the most intense, if not the most effective, critic of all. They have, after all, as the most powerful ministry, the most to lose! For years reform-minded politicians have been threatening the MOF with removal of the Bureau of the Budget. The “Holy of Holies”! To place it in the Kantei. Under more direct supervision of the prime minister and his team. This is only a remote danger, of course. Unlikely to occur in the lifetimes of even the youngest of our listeners. But one so profound in its implications for MOF bureaucrats that it cannot be ignored. So, MOF officials are even more sensitive than the officials of other ministries to any sort of “administrative reform” proposals. Especially those that enhance the power of the Kantei over the ministries.

The Likely Fate of the Abe-Watanabe Administrative Reform Proposals

It will take an analyst with far better information and intelligence that I bring to the task to predict responsibly the fate of the Abe-Watanabe administrative reform proposals. The best I can do is indicate things to watch for. Even from this distant perch I can see far too many variables likely to affect the outcome. Just too soon to do much more than guess. For what it’s worth, my guess is that some part of the proposal, or proposals, will be implemented within the three-year time frame suggested by Prime Minister Abe. Whether those parts will be genuinely meaningful, or just face-saving changes, is anybody’s guess.

I still can’t get over the apparent reluctance of the Kantei too “make more” of their administrative reform proposal. Especially the “anti-Amakudari” element. Prime Minister Abe and his Kantei subordinates all must recognize how effectively Prime Minister Koizumi used the postal system reform issue to maintain and even increase his public approval. While significant, postal system reform pales in significance compared with the administrative reforms proposed by Abe and Watanabe. The proposing of the reforms alone has mobilized serious opposition to the Abe Cabinet. So there’s no real benefit in playing the whole thing down in the communications media. If they’re serious.

Japan’s attentive public – voting public – has responded positively to any campaign for popular support that was based on genuine, realistic reform. Even postal system reform, for heaven’s sake! This administrative reform proposal has far greater potential. Indeed, the very opposition the reform proposals have stirred up could be turned to advantage. Were the Abe Kantei more aware of the importance of its responsibility to communicate effectively with Japan’s attentive public. As always, I’ll keep you posted.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re over time again this week. Sorry about that. And we’ve really only scratched the surface of this important single issue. Much more needs to be said. Next week we’ll focus on the local election scene, and what that tells us about the course of Japan’s domestic politics. Continue to send in your comments and suggestions on these topics, and others, to me at I read them all and consider each one when planning future programs.

Let’s go out today with something just a little different. This from the original Seldom Scene. From their 1975 Rebel Records “Live at the Cellar Door” album. It’s Mike Auldridge’s “Panhandle Country.” Here are the closing bars, with everyone joining in. Enjoy.


Goodbye all. Until next week.