The Democratic Party of Japan rode to power in 2009 and ended decades of Liberal Democratic Party rule by promising to turn politicians into the true decision-makers and end the practice of bureaucrats calling the shots on behalf of ministries instead of the people.
That change didn’t materialize.
The DPJ declared all-out war on bureaucrats and right from the start the relationship between politicians and government officials was rocky.
At his first news conference in September 2009, the DPJ’s first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, stressed that the government would establish a new decision-making system that would end dependence on bureaucrats.
“Within various structures, we intend to engage in politics in which politicians shed their dependency on bureaucrats, with politicians maintaining the initiative while still using the brilliant minds of civil servants,” he said.
Policy speeches by the prime minister that used to be a cobbled-together stack of papers written by government officials were instead drafted by politicians.
New “shiwake” screenings for budget cuts that were open to the public were introduced to eliminate wasteful spending.
Public support for the Hatoyama Cabinet exceeded 70 percent, with high hopes among the people that there would be change.
The hoopla didn’t last long.
As a show of leadership, Hatoyama declared that his government would move the contentious U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of Okinawa. This he failed to do.
Then transport minister Seiji Maehara abruptly stated that the construction of controversial Yanba Dam in Gunma Prefecture, a symbol of LDP pork, would be scrapped. But the government eventually reversed that decision amid conflicts of interest and officially decided last year to resume building it.
The government’s flip-flops on key policies triggered public outrage, confusion and disappointment in what was supposed to be a wave of change.
“I think the DPJ misunderstood what political leadership is,” said Shigeaki Koga, a former bureaucrat with the trade ministry. “The DPJ thought that the LDP and the bureaucrats were the same because of all of those years (the DPJ was part of) the opposition. . . . They viewed the LDP as well as the bureaucrats as their enemies, and that is why when the DPJ took power, they (sidestepped) the bureaucrats.”
Koga, who served under both the LDP and the DPJ, has been a known maverick within the ministry in advocating reforming the rigid bureaucracy. He quit the ministry in September 2011.
In an interview with The Japan Times, Koga pointed out that the DPJ came in unprepared and without any staff who could supply the expertise previously in the purview of the bureaucracy.
Comparing the government to a bus company, Koga explained that the politicians were the managers while the bureaucrats were the drivers.
“The DPJ’s biggest mistake was eliminating the bureaucrats. . . . It is natural for politicians to lack the ability to do the job of the bureaucrats because what they need to do is decide on the big picture, the policies, and adjust interests,” Koga said. “They needed people who knew and could hammer out the details of the policies and battle against the bureaucrats, but they didn’t prepare any staff for this role.”
One of the first things the DPJ did was to abolish the traditional meetings by the vice ministers — the top bureaucrats — which the ruling party called a symbol of the bureaucracy-led government. Twice a week, these senior officials from all ministries gathered to screen policies before being presented to the Cabinet for approval.
Koga and political analysts agree that dropping the meetings had little meaning in regard to actual policymaking.
Norihiko Narita, a political science professor at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture, explained that these meetings were led by one of the deputy chief Cabinet secretaries who acted as the coordinator between the government and the bureaucrats. But without the meetings, the ministries and the prime minister’s office lost the connection, Narita pointed out.
“When you decide to get rid of some system, you have to make sure that a new one is established,” said Narita, who is also a special adviser to the Cabinet Secretariat. “Just destroying the bureaucracy-led system will not automatically lead to political leadership. You have to build the system.”
Narita observed that as time passed under DPJ-rule, the successive prime ministers appeared to learn from the mistakes made by their predecessors in dealing with civil servants.
By the time Yoshihiko Noda took the helm, it appeared the DPJ was under the control of the bureaucrats, with the biggest example being his key goal of hiking the consumption tax — a long-sought goal of the Finance Ministry. In 2009, the DPJ promised the public it would not try to raise the levy during the four-year terms of its Lower House ranks.
“It’s true that Noda has been strongly influenced by the Finance Ministry, but not to the extent of the LDP days when lawmakers fully depended on the bureaucrats to hammer out policies,” Narita said. “Noda has clear opinions and he does make many decisions on his own, but he cannot do everything himself. . . . He is known as a good speaker but is not very good with handling people.”
Almost three years and three months have passed since the historic 2009 Lower House election saw the DPJ sweep to victory and knock the LDP off its throne. Throughout this time, however, the DPJ has followed the revolving-door prime ministerships that characterized the final years of the LDP’s rule.
Junichiro Koizumi had been a years-long LDP prime minister, but after emerging victoriously in the 2005 election, he quit and the reins went to Shinzo Abe, who started the revolving door.
Abe lasted about a year, to be followed by Yasuo Fukuda, whose stint was also brief. Taro Aso replaced him and was at the LDP helm when it fell. The LDP prime ministers who followed Koizumi had been installed by party machinations, not as a result of a general election.
After Hatoyama’s short-lived tenure, and his exit under a cloud, he was internally replaced by Naoto Kan, who served for little more than a year before Noda came in.
But despite the many problems and failures caused by the DPJ, experts still stressed that a change in government was a positive step in the grand scheme of things.
“The government after a change in power may succeed or fail, but things will accumulate as the switch occurs repeatedly. And because of the change, there were many things that came to light that had been hidden in the shadows under the LDP rule,” said Jun Iio, a political science professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
Pundits agree that achieving political leadership is a very difficult process because of the need to completely transform the decision-making process. Six months after the DPJ took power, it finally submitted a bill to the Diet to strengthen the authority of the prime minister’s office by setting up a national strategy unit that would determine overall policies to be put forward by the DPJ administration and would be in charge of drafting the budget.
As Hatoyama dragged his feet on submitting the legislation, the DPJ lost its Upper House majority in 2010 and was forced to withdraw the legislation in May 2011 amid a divided Diet.
And without a firm framework to support their leadership, prime ministers — including Noda — were announcing their policy decisions without gaining a consensus within the party or having a plan for how certain policies were to be carried out, Iio said.
“Speaking first and acting later was a mistake — that is not political leadership. Politicians must be responsible for what they say, and this realization should stop them from making irresponsible statements,” Iio said. “To establish true political leadership, you have to fundamentally change and rebuild the policymaking system.”
Former bureaucrat Koga agreed that things may have turned out differently had the DPJ succeeded in gaining control of the budget, the policies and the personnel rights of all senior government officials and enabling the prime minister to have his own hand-picked staff to support him.
Koga, the author of “Nihon Chusu no Hokai” (“The Collapse of the Central Government”), published in 2011, was forced to take a trade ministry post with few responsibilities after openly criticizing the DPJ’s administrative reforms as being toothless.
After 21 months of being sidelined, Koga resigned after a 30-year career as a bureaucrat.
He voiced strong disappointment over the DPJ’s failure to reform the bureaucracy but said that policies aside, the party was able to open up the notorious press clubs and improve transparency.
“The true meaning of political leadership is one led by the people, and information disclosure is extremely important when governing a state from the viewpoint of the public. This is something that would have been difficult to achieve under the LDP, and we must make sure that these positive steps are not completely reversed if the LDP comes back in power,” Koga said.