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Japan's Hatoyama tries to shift more power to the politicians

Japan's Hatoyama, the new prime minister, is carrying out a campaign promise to push aside bureaucrats and shift more power to the politicians. The effort is playing to favorable reviews – though budging an entrenched bureaucracy will take time.

By Staff Writer / March 9, 2010

Japan's new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama spoke at the Upper House's budget committee session at the national Diet in Tokyo on March 4. He is carrying out a campaign promise to push aside bureaucrats and shift more power to the politicians.

JIJI Press / AFP / Newscom

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Tokyo

For decades, Japan's weekly political calendar was fixed. Before the cabinet met on Tuesdays, the top civil servants from each ministry would meet on Mondays. If the bureaucrats had not already set government policy, the wags said, the ministers would have nothing to rubber stamp.

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There was enough truth in that barb for Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s new prime minister, to have abolished the bureaucrats’ Monday meeting since he took office last September.

And as he overturns Japanese political habits of a lifetime in his bid to shift power from civil servants to elected politicians, Mr. Hatoyama’s reforms are winning generally favorable, if cautious, reviews.

“They are trying to do the right thing; politicians should be responsible for politics, not bureaucrats,” says Minoru Morita, a veteran political commentator. But their “incompetence,” he charges, “has caused a great deal of confusion.”

Certainly there have been hiccups as an inexperienced Democratic Party (DPJ) government – which consigned the Liberal Democrats to their first electoral defeat in nearly 60 years last August – has struggled to find an even keel. Different cabinet members have voiced widely differing opinions, for example, over the future of the United States Marine Corps base at Futenma, confusing their American interlocutors.

Many observers attribute this disarray to DPJ politicians’ declared desire to work and set policy independently of the bureaucracy, heightened by a lack of leadership from Hatoyama himself, who has been dogged by funding scandals.

“It’s like amateurs driving Formula One cars,” says Masaru Kaneko, author of a recent book on civil service reform. “There is no overall harmony.”

Bureaucrats ran the show

Since at least the end of World War II, the bureaucracy has been the beating heart of Japanese politics, amassing power that far outstripped the authority enjoyed by successive LDP governments.

Senior civil servants routinely gave press conferences – unconstrained by any requirement for anonymity – and often openly cast scorn on the DJP, then in the opposition. Cabinet ministers would bring senior bureaucrats with them to parliament to answer members’ questions for them about government policy.

The new government has banned civil servants from the Diet, and forbidden them to give press conferences. Politicians have also held televised “budget screening” sessions, in which Diet members publicly hauled bureaucrats over the coals in search of wasteful spending. These proved extremely popular with the public, even if they did identify only 2 percent of the budget as unnecessary.

In the wake of such symbolic actions, however, the heavy work of reforming a well-entrenched and resentful bureaucracy has only just started.

Key to the effort is a bill now before parliament that would give the government the authority to name senior civil servants, “a kind of revolution,” says Takao Toshikawa, a journalist who specializes in Kasumigaseki, as the government bureaucracy is known, named for the Tokyo district in which most ministries are located.

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