Japan’s subsidy culture on trial

Author: Michael Cucek

For the past week the citizens of Japan have been the stunned witnesses of an unfamiliar phenomenon: a new regime addressing the excesses of its predecessor. In clockwork proceedings of subdued brutality, the grimly-named Government Revitalization Unit (GRU) has been reviewing the budgetary support of 447 programs, a fraction of the thicket of government supported programs that had proliferated over the fifty-four year rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Previous Minister of Financial Services and Administrative Reform, Yoshimi Watanabe. (photo: Ampontan)

For those watching the live webcasts or the excerpts broadcast on nightly television, the proceedings have been the first solid evidence that the government is serious about bringing change to Japan. For the participants, particularly members of the elite central government bureaucracy, the proceedings have demonstrated their diminished horizons under Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

The GRU proceedings are decidedly humble-looking affairs. The sessions are being held in a commandeered Tokyo gymnasium, with the three GRU working groups separated by temporary partitions. The commissioners and those summoned to testify sit on simple chairs at folding tables set up in an ‘O’ arrangement, while the press and observers sit in ranks of chairs set up alongside. Should anyone wish to talk, he or she has to pick up an old style handheld microphone from the table.

Each GRU session is an hour long. It is half venture capital investment conference, half Stalinist show trial. Bureaucrats in charge of a government budget allocation or executives from non-profits explain as fast as they can what a program is doing and why it deserves continued funding. Experts from the Finance Ministry offer their assessments of the history of the government’s support of the program. GRU commissioners then pepper the program’s defenders with questions — what progress the program has made toward its stated goals, which the private sector competitors fulfill the same function – anything to pick apart the funding request. The program’s defenders quietly plead for understanding and more time; the commissioners cut them off. Just before the hour ends, the commissioners vote and the session chair announces its decision.

The GRU judgments so far have been stunning in their consistent negativity. Of the 244 budget requests reviewed during the first five days, 243 have been rejected. ‘Reapply with a new proposal’, ‘No budget increases’,’Reduce budget request’, ‘Cease activity’, have been the responses. Just one program has received the GRU’s stamp of approval: a Health, Welfare and Labour Ministry fund supporting theater productions in the nation’s after-school activity centers.

The GRU sessions have given the citizens a sense of the immense scale of the activities the government of Japan has been funding. The GRU’s ludicrously large task of examining 447 programs – a task it is halfway to completing – represents only a fraction of the 3000 programs and funds now receiving central government support. Thanks to the 243 negative assessments, some 1.4 trillion yen (about $15 billion U.S. dollars) will be returning to the Finance Ministry for redistribution in the regular budget.

While the sessions have resulted in the elimination of funding for possibly valuable cutting edge science programs, they have largely demonstrated to the public what the public had long suspected: that an immense amount of their tax yen was going to waste on frivolous or hopeless projects.

The sessions have also exposed just how poorly the nation’s bureaucrats perform when they are asked to explain themselves. The defence of the funding requests has been at times apathetic, at other times obtuse. Some of the defenders have even made the mistake of questioning the commissioners’ right to run the sessions as they see fit – a stunning display of petulance for persons who are essentially begging for mercy.

The poor quality of the defence has been particularly surprising given the direct threat being posed to many current and former bureaucrats. Sitting bureaucrats of the Finance Ministry have been willing collaborators with the GRU commissioners as the Ministry has an institutionalized loathing of these funds and subsidies.  For the officials of other ministries, the reduction of the budget allocations under a ministry’s purview threatens that ministry’s prestige and power. The non-profit organizations and institutions that have been the primary recipients of these ministry-administered funding are furthermore the major source of amakudari (‘descent from heaven’) positions – sinecures for bureaucrats whose services are no longer needed by their ministry. Eliminating the government funding effectively eliminates the sinecures: without subsidy, non-profits do not have the means of paying the retired bureaucrats. Loss of subsidy also kills motivation: a main reason why non-profits would hire retired bureaucrats was because the retirees could attract the funding.

With the judgments of the GRU posing real threats to livelihoods and lifetime earnings, the lack of intensity and sincerity in defence has been striking. Some of those testifying have even laughed along with the commissioners at the ridiculousness of the programs they have been sent to explain. For the public watching the proceedings over the Web and in nightly news excerpts, this indifference has been the most galling revelation: that not even those with a potential to personally profit from these allocations think them fully defensible.

The big winner in the process so far has been the DPJ. The party promised the voters in August that a DPJ victory would bring radical change. Through the GRU sessions, the DPJ seems to be delivering it. Whether it is the change the country needs is another question: cutting back on current government spending programs is an unorthodox way of addressing the problems of a deflation-wracked economy performing far below its productive potential. Nevertheless, the GRU proceedings have reinforced the DPJ’s image as the party that cares about how tax revenues get spent.  For a citizenry exhausted by the weight of decades of iniquitous government spending, the sight of members of the bureaucracy and their dependents squirming is satisfaction enough.

Michael Cucek is the senior research analyst at Okamoto Associates, Inc. He offers commentary on Japan’s politics and society through his blog ‘Shisaku‘.


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  • Michael,

    This has been a pretty immensive display, you are right. What about the pro/cons of this?

    Some of the good things are generally fairly easy to see, money saved is money earned. And the defense mounted by some of these bureaucracies and NGOs (I am thinking in particular of former academic turned NGO leader who’s defense of her budget support turned on having be invovled in the woman’s movement for twenty years – that was aggressively overruled) demonstrated that a new creed of productivity over senority is taking over. Both good things.

    Another subtle good point is that it has stirred up the usually apathetic Japanese voter, on their opinions on how the DPJ have gone about “the change” the next election turns.

    But there is damage too I am sure. It is a cruel circus the DPJ has created, and might there not be blow back in some form? As long as the MOF and DPJ stay thick as theives then that blowback can be managed, but is there not the danger that MOF starts to become too dominant?

  • Mr. Rathus –

    It is unlikely that there will appreciable political blowback from the “cruel circus” of the GRU sessions.

    First, according to public opinion polls, central government bureaucrats, particularly those in the parasite ministries like Agiculture, Forestry and Fisheries, are the least trusted and least liked members of socriety.

    Second, the alternative to the DPJ is the LDP, which is the party whose ties to the bureaucracy created this mess.

    The DPJ has talked about ending bureaucratic rule. However, the party has no hope of bending the bureaucracy to its will without the collaboration of the bureaucrats of the Finance Ministry. Their mutual interests are congruent in this instance , hence their being “as thick as thieves.” They will most certainly be at loggerheads over some spending priorities in the future. As long as the general trend of DPJ rule is veering away from rewarding small groups of clients, the Finance Ministry will not actively oppose the party’s plans.

    Whether this means the Ministry of Finance is likely to become “too dominant” rather than just restored to a proper primus inter pares status probably depends more on whom you ask than on any objective criteria of fairness or efficacy.

  • Aurelia George Mulgan

    I wonder: is this exercise about ‘fiscal reconstruction’ or about getting much needed funds for the DPJ’s own spending programs? I suspect it is the latter. And is this the ‘buried treasure’ the DPJ was talking about before the election, or is this still to be discovered, ‘buried’ deep in special and government-affiliated agency accounts?

    What is really refreshing about this whole exercise is the new fiscal accountability being imposed on line ministries, who, in the past, only had to justify their programs to MOF budget examiners, but hardly the public. A totally new experience for everyone, public and academic observers included.