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Bureaucrats discovered to be pathetically human

by Philip Brasor

Few fixtures of civilization invite more derision than bureaucracy. We understand that government agencies are necessary for the smooth operation of civic life but bristle at the prospect of having to interact with them. Public offices are cold, monolithic things, operating on principles that have little regard for personal niceties and human foibles.

However, the coverage of the current crisis surrounding the Social Insurance Agency has revealed that bureaucracy is all too human, meaning its feelings can be hurt. The SIA ordered its employees to work last Sunday in order to help relieve public concern over the 50 million unidentified premium payment records uncovered by the Democratic Party of Japan in May. Right after the offices opened for business, a computer glitch shut them down. SIA Director General Kiyoshi Murase apologized for the technical problems, but added that he “hoped the public would appreciate” the fact that officers had come in to work on a Sunday.

There was a marked note of petulance in the comment. Murase understands that the SIA has become one of the most despised entities in the country, which is saying a lot since bureaucracies are disliked as a matter of course. Last week, TBS’s “News 23″ interviewed an elderly gentleman who had just gone to his local SIA office in Hokkaido to clear up his own pension confusions. He said that because he changed jobs many times in his life, whenever he inquired about his pension in the past, SIA officers were always rude to him, implying that his problems were his own fault. Now, however, “they’re being especially nice.”

That’s because the media are pointing cameras at them. Politicians have been making a lot of noise about which party is to blame for the crisis, but it’s obvious that the problems are deeply rooted in the culture of officialdom. In their coverage of the fiasco, the morning wide shows lean toward human interest elements: The outrage and unease of older Japanese who may not get all the retirement money they expect, and the objectionable behavior of bureaucrats. Former SIA workers interviewed anonymously talked about co-workers sitting around reading the newspaper, taking long tea breaks, and going home exactly at 6 p.m.

But that’s not news to most people, who have been conditioned to think of the bureaucracy as a members-only club. It’s the most coveted occupation in the country, even if the work itself is famously boring. The money is good, hours are fixed, and there’s always a reward after retirement in the form of amakudari — a cushy job with an affiliated private or public corporation. Regular people refer to bureaucrats as okami, or “gods” who hold their fate in their hands. They defer to them, but they also fear and loathe them. They don’t expect them to be kind, and when they are they feel more than relieved, which explains the elderly gentleman’s reaction. A common word for “bureaucracy” is oyakushoshigoto, which, as one friend explained, specifically refers to “a place that operates very slowly and closes just when your turn comes up.”

Could it be this attitude, rather than any inherent structural aspects, that caused the pension system to break down? Nihon TV’s Sunday night news show “Bankisha” implied that the pension fiasco is peculiarly Japanese. For years the two main pension systems used different reading protocols for personal names. For Kokumin Nenkin, which is paid by self-employed workers, contributors’ names were written in katakana script; while for Kosei Nenkin, which is paid by company workers and their employers, names were written in kanji.

In 1980, the pension system was computerized, but at the time computers couldn’t accept kanji. Key punchers were basically told they could decide for themselves what the reading for a given name in kanji was. Consequently, many records were input with the wrong names.

Another problem peculiar to Japan is the use of nengo, or the system of designating years according to imperial reign. Single digit numbers were assigned to each of the imperial eras — Meiji, Taisho and Showa — and it appears that many were input incorrectly. According to veteran workers, these problems were evident at the time but no one questioned the directives. “There was never a feeling of taking responsibility,” one ex-bureaucrat told NTV.

Until the DPJ brought the media’s attention to these and other failings, the burden of proof was always on the citizen. The SIA knew there were problems, but it was up to the citizen to prove he had paid his contribution properly in the case of a discrepancy, and, until the government hurriedly changed the law two weeks ago, if he didn’t do so within five years of the discrepancy occurring, his claim was deemed invalid. It should be remembered that the only reform to the pension scheme implemented since the unified number system began in 1997 was one that benefited the government. When he was appointed head of the agency a few years ago, the first thing Murase did was crack down on payment scofflaws.

The SIA’s mission should be easy: collect money, keep records, pay out benefits. But the agency seems more interested in building white-elephant resorts and auditoriums using pension funds and setting up affiliate organizations so that members of their club can retire to superfluous amakudari jobs, many of which are paid for by taxpayers. What the pension crisis teaches us is that the main task of bureaucrats is not service but self-preservation, which makes them actually quite human, and also a bit pathetic. TBS interviewed one middle-aged woman who showed up for consultation last Sunday and said of the officials, “They must be happy that they finally have something to do.” Let’s hope she was being sarcastic.