by Atsuo Miyachi
Japan's policy-making system seems to have reached its limits of usefulness. Japan's bureaucracy--the core player in the country's policy-making process--appears to be at a loss as to which direction the country should go. Given these grid-like circumstances, bold reforms, led by politicians, are urgently needed.
But even if drastic reforms are conceived and carried out by politicians, it is important to keep some bureaucratic organizations--and the knowledge and skills accumulated within them--independent from politics. The government's response to the collapse of the bubble economy in 1992 demonstrates this point. For five years the Japanese government continued to analyze the deteriorating situation from unrealistically optimistic perspectives. There is suspicion that its misjudgments were prolonged because it was reluctant to admit that the policies it had adopted had failed. Accountability of the bureaucracy--independent from politics--is essential.
Persons outside Japanese bureaucratic circles have extreme difficulty understanding how decisions are made or how responsibilities are established, partly because of the lack of good information. Basically, bureaucrats establish policies through a bottom-up process. Furthermore, they are characterized by a hierarchic personnel system, by an excessively consensus-oriented system, and by reports that are made without the signature of the person responsible for them. These peculiar customs have made Japanese bureaucrats seem "faceless" and machine-like.
However, signs that these systems may be reformed are beginning to surface.
Consensus System and Renza-sei
Decision-making in Japanese organizations is said to be characterized by the bottom-up council system. Whatever else can be said about it, the council system adopted by bureaucrats is thorough. In the regular meetings of "permanent" vice ministers, in which top administrative officials representing each ministry meet, unanimity is held as a strict principle. For example, if any of the attendees express any kind of doubt regarding the issues under discussion the meeting will be paralyzed. This means the permanent vice ministers must carefully negotiate with one another before the meeting is actually held, to make sure that consensus is achieved beforehand (this "ferreting out" process is known as nemawashi). The most popular expression used in government offices when bureaucrats wish to interfere with a given subject is "I haven't heard anything about this issue."
Moreover, when a problems occurs, blame is placed not on the individual who caused it, but on his or her entire working group. This "system" is known as renza-sei, in which all members of a group are punished should a scandal or corruption concerning one member of that group erupt. This system was originally intended to increase the self-control of individuals. In the Japanese bureaucracy today, however, it works in reverse: more officials become involved in problems, and fewer responsibilities are given to individuals. Therefore, the areas and actions for which bureaucrats can be held directly responsible are very limited, and the person responsible for a failure is never specified.
The symbolic center of the Japanese bureaucratic decision-making system is group decision-making based on ringi, a document referred to as "requirements for managerial decisions." The bureaucrats in the organization's lower-ranking position deliver this document to their superiors, and ask for approval. The ringi is then handed over to all sections directly and indirectly involved in the proposed issue, and, when the bureaucrats deem the proposal adequate, they give it their hanko, their stamp of approval. When the entire procedure is completed, the document is covered with hanko. However, if a certain bureaucrat is somehow skipped in this procedure, this person may well comment "I'm sorry, but I haven's heard anything about this issue," and sabotage it. When this happens, the bureaucrat who failed to include the skipped bureaucrat when the ringi made its previous rounds will be blamed for the failure. This is why the "requirements for managerial decisions" is delivered shotgun-style, including even those sections with marginal connections to the proposal. Exhaustive delivery for precaution's sake has become a fixed custom in Japan's bureaucracy. The problems surrounding this system were pointed out as early as 1964, when the first stage of the administrative reform was carried out. These problems have not been resolved; the definition of authority and responsibility remain ambiguous to this day.
However, we have now entered an age when bureaucrats must bear individual responsibilities. The lawsuit concerning patients who contracted the AIDS virus by contaminated blood products might have opened the door to this new movement. This was a case in which a large number of hemophiliacs were infected with the virus by imported unheated blood products that were HIV-tainted. The victims sued the government and several pharmaceutical companies concerning the approval for heated blood products and condensed blood products. As a result of this lawsuit, a former section chief from the Ministry of Health and Welfare was arrested on charges of professional negligence resulting in death. Although it was obvious that the Ministry of Health and Welfare was responsible for the decisions over the approval of these pharmaceuticals, an individual administrative official was charged for the responsibility of negligence. Similar cases will probably increase, and it is now time to reexamine the group decision system based on the "requirements for managerial decisions."
Evaluation of Bureaucrats and the Personnel System
The consensus system is also reflected in the evaluation of bureaucrats when they achieve successful results. For example, when a new policy is adopted, it is not necessarily the person who first proposed the idea that will be praised for this accomplishment. The personnel division official who decided to place this person in this position or the person's superior who allowed him or her to carry out the proposal will be praised as well. In other words, the fruits of success are distributed among the bureaucrats involved in the proposal.
In Japan, a system to evaluate accomplishments of individual government officials is undeveloped. No authoritative qualifying examination or objective index designed to demonstrate individual qualities exists in most Japanese administrative organizations (a rigorous examination, however, is given to those who hope to enter ministry). It is astonishing that even an annual report presenting individual achievements does not exist in Japan's bureaucracy.
Moreover, neither promotion standards nor promotion systems are clarified. This is the main reason why the seniority-based promotion system has taken root. Furthermore, among people of the same age, the criterion for evaluation is "reputation." Specialists analyze this evaluation system as follows: The "reputation system" usually works reasonably well, but it may prevent the bureaucrats from making decisions or force them to postpone their decisions when they weigh the risks of harming their reputation. Moreover, this type of personnel system may cause "enervation" among the bureaucrats, for they will avoid bold reforms that require sacrifice. Furthermore, they may place priority on benefiting their colleagues, and thus will induce "moral hazards."
The most important concern for an organization is not accomplishment, but to increase the number of its employees and to expand the domain its authority will cover. Japan's bureaucracy lacks clear-cut criteria to evaluate an organization's achievements, or standards to calculate the number of employees necessary for its operation. In terms of evaluation, these organizations are therefore reliant on primitive criteria, including the number of employees, the amount of budget they spend, and the number of legal acts they draft. Under this structure, Japanese bureaucrats have struggled to conquer jurisdiction even within their own ministries.
The effects of the personnel evaluation and decision-making systems have made Japanese bureaucrats look like the back sides of a deck of cards: each looks exactly the same. Needless to say, each bureaucrat does have his/her own individuality. Although their numbers may be small, bureaucrats who act with emphasis on their own individualities do exist. Moreover, some ministries employ more bureaucrats with distinct individualities than others do. But overall, bureaucrats do indeed resemble a pack of cards, and their personnel systems are looking increasingly like a house made of cards.
Certain conditions are necessary for building a tall card house. First, all must be the same size. If some are bigger or smaller, the construction process will become complicated. Second, the structure of the house needs to be restricted--careful planning is necessary before construction. Furthermore, the resultant card house may not be very stable, even though it can be tall. If the house is suddenly pushed from any side by an unexpected force, it will quickly fall to pieces.
Can Bureaucratic Behavior Be Changed?
What kinds of action do bureaucrats typically take, given these personnel evaluation and decision-making systems?
The promotion of bureaucrats can be compared with the process of climbing the card house. The authority of each card has been decided by the place (post) on which each one is placed. A typical bureaucrat becomes one of these cards, and over the years attempts to climb the pyramid.
In this way, it is important that every post functions without serious mistakes. In some instances, expertise even becomes an obstacle. According to some sociological analyses, dehumanization occurs in various ways in hierarchical organizations. Some bureaucrats even feign a lack of expertise even when they have it.
In the scandal over HIV-contaminated blood products, the former section chief in charge was arrested. However, his boss--the director of the bureau--didn't get into trouble. The director is said to have claimed that "because he did not have expertise," he had no choice but to believe and support his subordinate's judgment in the matter. However, if the director really did lack the ability to judge the situation and to take responsibility for such an important issue, why, we may reasonably ask, was he allowed to retain his position as director?
If politicians do take a more active role in initiating policy measures, the role of bureaucrats will also change: They will become more technically oriented. The personnel system should be changed. In the Japanese bureaucracy, high-ranking people in management are supposed to be well treated. However, in most organizations where expertise is required, specialists are star players. Michael Jordan was paid much more than his coaches. This cannot be otherwise: Good players could not exist if it were not so.
There is no doubt that the cardhouse-type bureaucracy is extremely fragile, and is in a critical phase. One sticking point regarding future reforms is whether penetrating questions can be asked on issues surrounding the consensus system, the renza-sei system, and the anonymity that form the very heart of the bureaucracy.
One key concept behind the reforms is the issue of accountability. Despite the official buzzword status of the word, accountability has not yet been given much importance by most Japanese organizations.
Japanese bureaucrats have long held reputations as hard workers with significant responsibilities. Many people, however, harbor increasing doubts about whether bureaucrats are doing their jobs for the benefit of the Japanese people or for their own benefit. The bureaucracy must demonstrate that its efforts are indeed undertaken for the betterment of the people. Furthermore, individual bureaucrats have an obligation to explain why they are not just other cards in the deck and to demonstrate professional accountability, perhaps through the development of special expertise.
If reforms are made from these perspectives, it seems to me possible to change the current house-of-cards-style system into an administrative system that can truly meet the needs and expectations of the citizenry.
Atsuo Miyachi is Senior Researcher at NIRA. He is currently at work on an analysis of Japan's decision-making process.