by Jun Iio
The stream of criticism aimed at Japan's bureaucracy has been unceasing over the past few years, and it is finally taking its toll on the authority of bureaucrats, whose reputations have sustained serious damage. This phenomenon is a first in Japan's modern history: Even after the defeat in World War II, the structure of the general administrative bureaucracy--with the exception of the Ministry of Home Affairs--was not only preserved, but the bureaucracy undertook the responsibility of postwar reconstruction. The size and scale of the bureaucracy today is much larger than it was then.
Predictably, a reaction to this barrage of criticism--a kind of anti-anti-bureaucratic movement--has surfaced. However, even though many of the criticisms heaped on bureaucrats are based on wrong or misleading premises, some are valid. Reactions to the criticism of bureaucrats without an understanding of this simple reality cloud the present situation even more. Professor Peter Drucker of Claremont University, for example, attempted to refute many of the criticisms in his latest essay in Foreign Affairs, but it seems that he fell into ambivalent and even tricky logic. On the one hand, Drucker attempts to demonstrate the "anniversality" of the strength of the bureaucrats, and laboriously points out that Japan is not the only country with bad bureaucrats. On the other, he also argues that the Japan's bureaucracy lacked the power to solve Japan's structural economic problems.
A Malfunctioning Government
Well, what are the problems with Japan's bureaucracy today, and what should Japan be doing to solve them? Although the Japanese bureaucracy has much in common with other bureaucracies around the world, it does have its own specific--and important--flavor. In the same way that cars and buses can both be recognized as vehicles, but yet are very different, Japan's bureaucracy has characteristics that differentiate it from those of other countries.
Much of the recent criticism of the bureaucracy in Japan was triggered by the revelation of serious corruption within its ranks. The myth that Japanese bureaucrats are especially clean and honest collapsed; once the realities of bureaucratic life were accurately reported (the daily "entertainment" enjoyed by senior bureaucrats is one colorful example), people's attitudes toward them chilled considerably. It is true, however, that those who received money in connection with their official authority are exceptional, even though many were wined, dined, and well-treated at their post-retirement positions obtained through amakudari (literally, "descent from heaven," a traditional Japanese custom in which retired bureaucrats are typically given cushy jobs in industries they formerly regulated). Compared with many other countries, it can still be said that Japanese bureaucrats are honest and impervious to graft or outright bribery. Moreover, the practices of receiving entertainment and amakudari are hardly secret; details concerning these arrangements have been well known for many years. So why has corruption within the bureaucracy become such a big issue?
The real cause of criticism of bureaucrats is the malfunctioning of the Japanese government. That is to say, throughout most of the postwar period, when the performance of bureaucrats was considered excellent by people both inside and outside Japan, most people thought that although there are many problems with them, they should be forgiven because they work very well. Today, however, many people feel frustrated, and consider it unreasonable for bureaucrats who cannot make effective policies to be well treated.
It seems the Japanese government cannot hammer out effective measures to deal with the recent economic recession; it just appears to sit there, watching the situation get worse. However, unlike Professor Drucker, few bureaucrats imagine that the situation today can be solved by the heretofore successful policy of delaying or thwarting change, which--whatever its other faults--was in its own way an effective approach. Although bureaucrats are struggling to create coherent and intelligent policies, they are perplexed about why every policy they hammer out doesn't work out quite as they had planned. Because Japan today faces major changes in the global environment, the bureaucrats' special talent--endless tweaking and fine-tuning of existing policies--no longer appears to be of use. They do not yet know how to deal with the scope of the changes they face.
Further confusion arises when bureaucrats are blamed for the present situation. That is to say, it is unreasonable to demand solutions from bureaucrats who are strictly bound by the current system and who cannot move freely when systemic malfunction occurs. How should Japan deal with situations that are constantly changing? Under Japan's constitution, it is the elected officials--not the bureaucrats--who should be making these heady decisions.
Institutional Weakness of the Cabinet
Prevents Effective Decision-Making
The problem is that the cabinet--whose members are Japan's most powerful politicians--is not and indeed cannot be a substantial decision-making organization. The parliamentary system of government is a system whereby the legislative and executive branches are united through the majority party. Therefore, depending on several variables, this system can create a very strong power center, the strength of which might be likened to the Thatcher cabinet in Britain. In Japan, however, the parliamentary system of government is a relatively new concept: it was introduced along with the postwar constitution. But pre-war traditions survived, and many officials still act as if the executive branch is independent of the legislative branch. Thus, the concepts that government ministers are really just the spokesmen of bureaucrats, who make the real decisions at the highest levels regarding matters of state, and that the cabinet is an organization whose primary function is to rubber-stamp whatever the bureaucrats tell them to, are still alive.
Still, as democracy took some root, the authority of elected members of the Diet increased, and gradually became more accepted. Thus, members of the ruling party began attempting to intervene in the bureaucratic decision-making processes, and achieved some success. As a result of that success, the central organization of the ruling party has grown; it is now called a "second government." (To make arrangements between the cabinet and the ruling party, a meeting known as the Government and the Ruling Parties' Coordination Session is held.) The top official of the executive branch is the prime minister, and the parliamentary principle of naming the head of the ruling party prime minister is still maintained. Often, however, it is difficult for the prime minister to take a leadership position in the policy-making processes of the cabinet. During last year's deliberations on administrative reforms, for example, the prime minister's ability to actually propose agendas to the cabinet meeting was discussed. Moreover, the ruling party has a decentralized structure that encompasses the powerful Policy Affairs Research Council, which consists of committees differentiated by policy areas. The General Council is the supreme decision-making organization. Furthermore, the party leader who has been named prime minister is not usually involved in the ruling party's decision-making process. In short, the policy-making process in Japan has doubled. But in both processes, the principle of top-level integration does not come into play.
On the contrary, if the ministers of state were merely the spokespersons of bureaucrats, the bureaucrats would have exhibited more control over cabinet affairs. But we must remember that elite bureaucrats do not work as one body; they are divided into various ministries that ferociously compete with one another. Thus, they do not "operate" the cabinet with unified and common goals. After all, the duties and responsibilities of elite bureaucrats regarding their own organization can be overwhelming intheir complexity. Elite bureaucrats who attempt to work beyond the scope of their assigned jobs typically get caught up in struggles with other elite bureaucrats from other ministries. To make matters worse, competition between the different ministries also acts as a brake on self-reform by bureaucrats. Those bureaucrats who attempt to downgrade or dismantle relations with industrial sectors under their jurisdiction to accommodate a more streamlined decision-making process will inevitably be attacked by bureaucrats from other ministries eager to expand their influence with officials in related organizations. Self-reform is neither easy nor straightforward, and it can quickly lead reform-minded bureaucrats into positions of serious disadvantage.
In short, individual Japanese bureaucrats are not especially powerful, nor are they a united elite class as a whole. They act in accordance with each ministry's well-organized order (for example, career-track bureaucrats are automatically promoted every two years, and bureaucrats in higher positions resign every year to give their seats to successors) and exercise power only within a solidly established order.
Bureaucrats Alone Cannot Solve the Dilemma:
Politicians Must Take the Initiative
As such, authority is distributed in a dispersed manner. Therefore, when politicians and bureaucrats are both involved in policy-making, it is difficult to coordinate their actions as a whole without applying basic principles of organization. In the current system, every policy proposal is recognized and treated as an actual proposal only when the responsible ministry for it has been determined. Furthermore, until the department in charge is specified within the ministry, the necessary procedures of policy-making cannot be carried out. A policy draft will be examined first in the "bottom" sections at the ministry; if it passes muster, it then makes its way upward into the upper sections, and finally to the top. It is by this process that the draft will be authorized and finally become an officially approved policy of the organization. In this way, a policy draft will be approved first by the ministry, then by the cabinet, and finally by the Diet, where it is officially adopted as government policy.
As can easily be imagined, however, disputes of all kinds emerge throughout this process. For example, when determining the ministry in charge of a certain policy, several ministries confront one another in the process of "agenda setting." Furthermore, bureaucrats sometimes get involved (or even participate) in the activities of politicians, as seen in such customs as the gosetsumei (in which bureaucrats give lectures to the politicians concerning administration, but occasionally provide them with "insider" valuable information. This is because they scheme to make the politicians advocate policies that are beneficial for their ministry). At the same time, politicians get involved in ministry activities by proposing recommendations to the bureaucrats. Given these circumstances, there is simply no way around the adjustment of interests within the ministries. In some cases, disputes fought between politicians are in reality confrontations between ministries, which often send politicians as their representatives and force them to argue in their favor. One fact is clear: Those who take part in the process of policy-making must base their actions on the question, "How should the next procedure be carried out?"
Adjustments can be (and are) made in various ways, but the Japanese government offers one opportunity--probably the only one--which all kinds of different policy proposals can be adjusted at one time. This opportunity arises when the budget bill is established. In this process, Japan's Ministry of Finance maintains a dominant position, since it is authorized to be directly involved in the budget adjustments. In a sense, however, MOF's involvement is limited: It is allowed to reduce the amount of each respective item of the budget, which in turn leads to a reduced amount of the total budget. In other words, although the MOF has the power to decrease the total budget amount, the budget is still established based on the orders established by each ministry. Thus, a fundamental adjustment cannot be brought about. Moreover, criticism of the inefficient monetary policies the MOF has adopted has been especially harsh. As a result, ministry officials have become less interested in making adjustments; it would therefore seem that this mechanism--the establishment of the budget--is no longer effective in terms of adjusting the interests of various ministries at one time. On the other hand, a growing number of politicians are becoming individually involved in the making of actual policies. They even have a slogan: "politicians are superior." This is another reason why current policies are not in coordination with other policies.
To improve the efficiency of policy-making, it is necessary for the government to dissolve its inherent dual structure so that the cabinet can become the core organization responsible for substantial decision-making. To fulfill this goal, the myth of "the capable bureaucrats undertaking effective policy adjustments"should be buried once and for all. Furthermore, much of the criticism heaped on the bureaucrats--often made with the hope that politicians will be able to solve Japan's big problems automatically by getting rid of bureaucrats altogether--isn't helping the situation. It is necessary to explore ways to effectively utilize the bureaucrats as components of an organization. Moreover, politicians need to activate the specialized ability of bureaucrats across ministries to make better policies, not to exclude them from Japan's policy-making process.
Jun Iio is Associate Professor of Government at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, in Tokyo.