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.
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.
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.
The government is also anxious to “break ministries out of their silo mentality,” says Yoshito Sengoku, minister for national strategy.
“Japanese politics are seriously diseased,” he argues. “National interests are put behind ministerial interests. We need to break this structure for the health of the nation, and civil service reform is a first step toward that,” encouraging senior civil servants to move between ministries instead of spending their whole career in one institution.
Politicians take the reins, with help
Though bureaucrats were initially “stunned and perplexed” by the new government’s policies, says Mr. Morita, “the atmosphere is now returning to normal.” Civil servants from the powerful Finance Ministry worked closely with the government to draw up the national budget, reflecting DPJ priorities, for example.
This is largely because both politicians and bureaucrats appear to have decided that they have to work together.
New ministers, however strong their desire to make their personal mark on policy, “have understood that in order to come up with policies, you need support from the bureaucracy,” says Ichita Yamamoto, a senator from the opposition LDP.
Japan has few think tanks, he points out, and Japanese politicians work with a small handful of aides. “Traditionally, bureaucrats have fulfilled that role for members of parliament,” Mr. Yamamoto says.
At the same time, there are few signs of civil servants seeking to sabotage government plans, as was widely alleged in 1993, when a coalition of disparate parties briefly unseated the LDP government.
There is a certain amount of badmouthing, acknowledges the LDP’s Yamamoto. “When we call on bureaucrats to explain things, sometimes they will talk about the deficiencies and weaknesses of government policies,” he says. “They shouldn’t do it, but they do.”
On the whole, though, ministerial bureaucracies appear to be doing their political masters’ bidding, politicians and civil servants say. “We are diligent and serious people, and we support our bosses even if they are crazy,” says one young civil servant who supports the reforms but who asked to remain anonymous.
The government’s relationship with Kasumigaseki is expected to improve further when it is able to appoint, reshuffle, or demote the top several hundred civil servants. Hatoyama is expected to use the upcoming law to remove some senior bureaucrats closely aligned with the LDP, observers say.
The government also hopes for a more coherent approach to its planned reforms when the National Strategy Bureau is given the legal status it needs to ensure proper budget and staffing levels.
“The bureau’s role has not been clearly defined until now,” admits its new head, Mr. Sengoku. “The idea is that it will coordinate policy between ministries into a coherent whole,” while at the same time drawing up an overarching strategy charting Japan’s path in the 21st century.
That task remains unfulfilled, to the disappointment of many supporters. “Out of 100, I would give the government 60 or 70,” says the young reformist civil servant. “They are doing well, but not perfectly.
“They should propose a clear vision about which way Japan should go,” he adds. “About what we should do in order to thrive again.”