Japan: Political leadership needed for better democracy

Author: Yoichi Funabashi

Bureaucratic memos have no place in the new administration led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan.

His Cabinet members make a point of not looking at, let alone reading from, memos submitted by bureaucrats at ministerial committee meetings and news conferences.

Of course, his ministers let bureaucrats offer their input on relevant data, but they do not want any memos instructing them on what to say.

On the evening of Sept. 20, prior to Hatoyama’s debut visit as prime minister to the United States, he hosted a ministers’ committee meeting at the prime minister’s office to discuss global warming.

Besides Hatoyama, eight ministers attended. They were: the deputy prime minister who also serves as state minister in charge of national strategy; the foreign minister; the finance minister; the farm minister; the minister of economy, trade and industry; the minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism; the environment minister; and the chief Cabinet secretary.

Hatoyama told the gathering: ‘I will be making a speech at the U.N. summit on climate change. I hope you will leave the details up to me, but I want to hear your opinions.’

Seiji Maehara, the transport minister, talked about the importance of establishing international rules that would recognize Japan’s advanced environmental technology, such as in hybrid and electric cars, in contributing to greenhouse gas reductions. He asked Hatoyama to not undermine the national interest.

Hirotaka Akamatsu, the farm minister, argued that farmland should also be considered as absorbers of greenhouse gases along with forests.

The debate soon turned heated.

Cabinet ministers freely discussing policy without reading from memos prepared by their ministries must surely seem like the most natural thing in the world. But it serves as another example of politicians taking the initiative in policymaking.

One high-ranking bureaucrat who sat in the background of that meeting commented: ‘I do not want to appear to be sycophantish toward the DJP-led government, but I thought they were actually doing a good job. At meetings of Cabinet ministers handling global warming issues under the previous administration, the ministers could not keep their eyes off memos in front of them. It was a major difference this time.’

A check into what Hatoyama did over his first 12 days as prime minister as reported in the vernacular Asahi Shimbun produced an interesting comparison with previous Liberal Democratic Party governments.

Of the people Hatoyama met, 26 were Cabinet ministers and only eight were bureaucrats.

Over the first 12 days of their respective administrations, Taro Aso met with 21 ministers and 24 bureaucrats, while Yasuo Fukuda met with 16 ministers and 27 bureaucrats and Shinzo Abe met with 21 ministers and 19 bureaucrats.

Those numbers are a telling indication that politicians are gaining the upper hand over bureaucrats.

The secret to maintaining control of government is the ability to effectively control the bureaucracy. Thus, how a party manages the submittal of memos from bureaucrats is an important part of controlling the bureaucracy.

Prior to the Aug. 30 Lower House election, Naoto Kan, who now serves concurrently as deputy prime minister and state minister in charge of national strategy, visited Britain and sought advice on steering the bureaucracy from John Prescott, who served as a deputy prime minister under Tony Blair. Britain has a much longer history with change in government than Japan.

Prescott told Kan to never allow bureaucrats to take the initiative in writing responses for parliamentary debate. He said once that happens, important political decisions cannot be made.

So far, it appears the Hatoyama Cabinet is taking that advice to heart.

A senior vice minister said, ‘If we ask something, they (bureaucrats) will immediately present a memo. However, policy discussions should never be based on the memo that they presented because the devil is hidden in the details.’

For the time being, the Hatoyama administration will put most of its efforts into ‘removing the bile’ and ‘reviewing wasteful spending in the budget.’

An influential DPJ lawmaker said that in egregious cases the party was prepared to hold ‘a public execution in Kasumigaseki.’ (Kasumigaseki, a Tokyo district where the central government ministries are located, is a synonym for the bureaucracy.)

Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii also had advice for other Cabinet members on the budget compilation process.

‘Do not think of yourselves as ministers who are making requests,’ Fujii said. ‘I want you to become ministers who appraise ministry projects.’

However, the administration has no intention of taking on the entire bureaucracy. It knows the importance of a divide-and-rule strategy.

Because there should not be any mishaps in the budget and foreign policy, the administration will work somewhat closely with the finance and foreign ministries.

However, it plans to be more aggressive with ministries that have major public projects, such as the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

By reducing the huge amounts spent on projects with vested interests under the jurisdiction of such ministries, the administration will seek to squeeze out revenues for use in fulfilling DPJ campaign promises, such as support for child-rearing.

One minister said, ‘The vertical division in the ministries is much worse than I expected. But, that means that it will be easier to divide and rule.’

One method for carrying out that strategy would be to classify bureaucrats as either good or bad and appoint those willing to help in changing policy to important posts. Those who resist would be left out in the cold.

Bureaucrats, for their part, are preparing various strategies of their own to meet the challenge from the new administration.

The Defense Ministry’s strategy is based on flexible response and is being dubbed the ‘1-8-1’ theory.

A high-ranking Defense Ministry official explained what that means.

‘The first 1 would be carried out by changing the style of doing things, while the 8 involves maintaining the status quo,’ the official said. ‘The final 1 would allow the DPJ government to carry out what an LDP government could not.’

A specific example of what would be involved under the first 1 relates to the DPJ argument to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside of Okinawa Prefecture. The ministry would conduct a review of the proposal, but in the end convince the government to give up on that possibility.

A possible scenario for the final 1 in the Defense Ministry theory would apply to the DPJ promise to propose a revision of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement. The United States just might go along with the proposal, thereby producing an unexpected positive result.

Other ministries are viewing the new administration as an opportunity to clear out ‘accumulated inventory.’

For example, the Foreign Ministry faces the problem of secret pacts with the United States over nuclear weapons and military emergencies. Some people in the ministry, including a diplomat with experience in Asia, want to use the new administration to sweep away old issues.

The Asian hand explained the expectations held by some ministry members.

‘All major diplomatic initiatives in the postwar era have been led by politicians,’ the diplomat said. ‘For example, the normalization of relations with the Soviet Union, with South Korea and with China as well as the return of Okinawa were all such cases. There will be no diplomatic action unless politicians make risky decisions. Diplomacy over global warming has already begun to move dramatically.’

The diplomat was pointing to Hatoyama’s promise made soon after becoming prime minister to cut Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent over 1990 levels by 2020.

Other ministries want to cut ties with organizations that built up influence through a mutually dependent relationship with LDP lawmakers who served as a lobby for such vested interests.

Some examples are the health ministry and the national medical association, the farm ministry and the national association of agricultural cooperatives as well as the education ministry and those seeking subsidies for private schools.

However, most ministries are taking a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to finding out what politicians can really do.

Finance Ministry officials have submitted a reference document to key government officials about items in the supplementary budget that the DPJ wants to cut. The items were classified as ‘ordinary,’ ‘somewhat difficult’ and ‘difficult.’

Even among items classified as ordinary, most would require a major political decision for cuts to be made.

It was as though the bureaucrats were presenting a challenge to politicians, saying, ‘Since this requires decisions made by politicians, please go ahead and do so.’

That is likely just the beginning of what one minister called ‘a game of outfoxing the foxes.’

There is a risk that the battle with bureaucrats will end up in a quagmire.

DPJ lawmakers who take on government posts could turn out to become lobbyists for the ministry in which they work.

There is the danger that bureaucrats could take advantage of confusion among the three parties making up the coalition government.

There is also the possibility of bureaucratic opportunists emerging, such as the move in 1994 by Finance Ministry officials to introduce a national welfare tax. While the proposal was killed quickly, it also led to the collapse of the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa.

What the new administration should be careful about is not setting up too many battle fronts with the bureaucracy.

This was another piece of advice Prescott gave Kan.

Prescott said that any new government would be eager to do many things, but that some patience was needed. Any major initiative should be limited to one per ministry, Prescott said.

Control by politicians does not mean that politicians should rule with an overbearing and domineering manner over bureaucrats.

The important thing is to establish the neutrality of bureaucrats.

The goal is realizing the objective laid out in Article 15 of the Constitution, which states, ‘All public officials are servants of the whole community and not of any group thereof.’

Making the bureaucracy an impartial entity is also necessary because bureaucrats should not be allowed to over-represent the public space.

For a long time in Japan, the bureaucracy had a near-monopoly over the public space.

Those involved in civil society, but who were not bureaucrats, were considered as being only part of the private sector and were not given an adequate opportunity to take part in the public space.

Politicians’ endeavors to exercise greater control over policymaking should not simply end as an all-out confrontation with bureaucrats.

We should look forward to a situation where politicians display leadership to create a lively and powerful public space.

That could be achieved through a major move in information disclosure on public policy as well as through deeper ties with nongovernmental organizations.

Political leadership should be utilized to expand the public space along with the people and to foster greater participatory democracy.

This article first appeared here in the Asahi Shimbun.