A group of young officials in Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki government district have been working on reforming the nation’s central administrative system, which they say is too vertically segmented and has failed to produce internationally competitive policies.
About 20 current and former civil servants mainly from government ministries and agencies are active in a nonprofit organization dubbed Project K, exchanging opinions with other organizations, municipalities and private-sector companies, and compiling proposals to streamline the bureaucracy.
They complain that central government officials are not given as much time as they would like for working out policies because so much of their day is taken up with meetings with officials of other ministries or preparing questions and responses for Cabinet ministers taking part in Diet deliberations.
By organizing discussion sessions with local government officials and seminars with political or other experts, Project K has been seeking to create a flexible administrative structure that can adapt to change, they said.
Last May, Project K held a discussion session in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, one of the coastal cities hard hit by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011, and exchanged views with local officials on the current rigid bureaucratic system and ways to restructure it.
Some of the participants argued that it took too much time to go through the administrative steps to convert damaged farmland into land for industrial use, while others urged the central government to remove restrictions so as to expedite the ongoing reconstruction of the still-devastated areas, according to Project K.
Among roughly 60 people who participated in the session in Rikuzentakata was Makoto Ikeda, 30, an official of the Land Economy and Construction and Engineering Industry Bureau at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
Ikeda, who is now a member of Project K, said the session renewed his belief in the need to reform Kasumigaseki.
But Ikeda rebutted the argument made by many politicians that central government officials have too much power and are only wasting taxpayers’ money.
“There are enough competent officials in Kasumigaseki, but at the moment there are no systems that make the best use of their talents,” he said.
Project K was formed in 2003 by about 10 young bureaucrats, including Ichiro Asahina, 39, who was an official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry until about two years ago and served as the first director of the organization.
Asahina entered the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, the precursor of METI, in 1997.
While studying at Harvard University in 2001, he learned how the U.S. policymaking system works and that experts in diplomacy, economics and many other fields join the U.S. government and play an important role in crafting important policies.
“I realized that it would be extremely difficult for Japan to compete with the United States in the field of policymaking as Japanese bureaucrats are moved to a new post every one or two years and cannot consolidate their expertise under the current system,” he said.
After returning to Japan, Asahina founded Project K together with like-minded colleagues and held a series of study sessions.
He then led Project K in publishing in 2005 “Kasumigaseki Kozo Kaikaku,” a book about a set of proposals for structural reform of the central bureaucracy.
Asahina resigned from the ministry in 2010 to create a human resource development venture firm called Aoyama Shachu Corp., named after Kameyama Shachu, the trading company established in Nagasaki by Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-1867), a popular reformist whose efforts helped lead to the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century.
At Aoyama Shachu, Asahina organizes leadership training seminars and offers support for drafting election campaign platforms for candidates.
His near-term goal is “to change the world of politics and bureaucracy from both inside and outside along with Project K,” Asahina said.
Project K plans to hold its first seminar of 2013 on Jan. 20 in Tokyo. The event will include a panel discussion to mark the publication late last year of its third book, “Kasumigaseki kara Nihon wo Kaeru” (“Change Japan from Kasumigaseki”), containing the young bureaucrats’ prescriptions for reform.