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A year in the (short) life of Japan’s Cabinet

by Colin P.A. Jones

Contributing Writer

Early each year, Law of the Land likes to reflect on what one of Japan’s three branches of government did the previous one. This time we’ll look at the surprisingly durable Shinzo Abe habitat known as the Cabinet.

First, lawyerly foreplay: definitions. What is the Cabinet?

A body with that name was first established in 1885, making it one of the oldest parts of the national government. It was not a constitutional body, however, until the postwar period — the Meiji Constitution of 1889 did not even mention the word.

Now the Constitution devotes a whole chapter to it, vesting in the Cabinet what the English version calls “executive power,” but in Japanese actually means “administrative power.” Cabinets are formed immediately following a Lower House election once the newly constituted Diet chooses a prime minister.

Under the Constitution, Cabinets are comprised of the prime minister and “other ministers of state.” By law the body appears limited to a maximum population of 14 ministers of state or 17 if there is a special need for more. Yet commemorative pictures of the fourth Abe Cabinet taken after its formation on Nov. 1 show 24 people standing on the red-carpeted stairs of the Prime Minister’s Office in Nagatacho. Japan’s government has only 11 ministries. Its members represent a virtual retread of Abe’s last Cabinet, but who are the extras?

First, the prime minister is not included when “ministers of state” are counted.

Second, the Japanese term (kokumudaijin) has no linguistic connection to the word “ministry” (shō), so one can be a minister of state without a ministry. The heads of both the Reconstruction Ministry and the National Public Safety Commission (which oversees the police) have such status, as does press conference regular Yoshihide Suga, the chief Cabinet secretary.

The Cabinet Office, where various government functions and agencies not controlled by ministries are centralized under the prime minister, has several “minister of state for special missions.” Their briefs cover matters of national importance, such as gender equality and disaster management. The prime minister can also appoint ministers “in charge” of other — usually more temporary — policy matters, such as preparing for the 2020 Olympics. Once these are all added to the tally, there are more than 50 ministerial titles in the current Cabinet. But most wear multiple hats. For example, Masaji Matsuyama is minister of seven portfolios, including “Nobody’s Having Kids Problem,” “Cool Japan strategy” and “Space Policy” — talk about synergy!

Finally, temporary legal measures allow up to 18 ministers of state in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics and 19 while post-3/11 reconstruction is still in progress. So Abe plus 19 multihatted ministers account for 20 of the people in that picture.

There are also three deputy chief Cabinet secretaries in the Cabinet Secretariat, (which helps the Cabinet make policy, where the Cabinet Office and other ministries supposedly implement it). Assistant secretaries are not ministers of state but, like ministers, their appointments are ratified by the Emperor (a big deal in the hierarchy of public servants). By tradition, one is appointed from each of the two Diet chambers with the third being an ex-bureaucrat. Kazuhiro Sugita, the current person in this role was a top police official. This appointee is important: Decades’ worth of bureaucratic connections facilitate policy coordination. He also usually provides some consistency; while politician assistant secretaries come and go with reshuffles, the bureaucratic appointees typically do not. Sugita has been in the role for almost five years, geological time in the world of party politics.

The final person in the picture is the director general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, one of the most powerful members of the civil service. The Cabinet Legislation Bureau provides legal advice to the government, and vets legislation prepared by ministries and submitted to the Diet by the Cabinet. Although not a lawyer, he is essentially the Cabinet’s general counsel.

Ministries also have senior and junior vice ministers. These are political appointees, but not “ministers of state.” They don’t get to be in the picture.

Constitutionally, the majority of ministers of state must be Diet members, a rejection of the prewar system where it was both possible and not unusual for Cabinets to have elected no politicians. Today, all are usually parliamentarians, mostly from the more influential Lower House. Of the current slate only four are from the Upper House. Occasionally a Diet outsider gets appointed to a ministerial post, but those that have in the past have almost all been ex-bureaucrats. The Constitution also requires Cabinet members to be “civilians,” an odd requirement for a country whose Constitution prohibits it from having an “army, navy or air force.”

Doling out Cabinet seats is a form of political patronage. With the possible exception of the finance and foreign ministries, ministers are changed so often that one wonders how they accomplish anything. Since Abe reclaimed the helm in December 2012, the ministries of agriculture and justice have each had six different people serve as minister, while the ministry of education has had four.

The Cabinet runs the country, or delegates the task to bureaucrats and (theoretically) oversees them. “Running the country” includes proposing most bills that actually get passed into law by the Diet. In 2017, the Cabinet proposed 75 laws to the Diet, all but four of which were passed. By comparison, of the 164 bills initiated from within the Diet, only 12 made it into law.

Some might argue it is actually bureaucrats who control both Cabinet and their ministers by providing the all-important secretarial and administrative apparatus that schedules and sets agendas. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and the politicians may now be in ascendancy.

One of the most significant organizational changes wrought by the Abe administration may prove to have been the establishment in 2014 of the Cabinet Personnel Bureau, This now exercises centralized (and thus politicized) control over the appointment of top bureaucrats. Previously appointment of top officials was notionally the remit of the applicable minister who would often be clueless as to who was who leaving control over senior personnel decisions largely in the hands of the bureaucrats themselves.

By law, Cabinet business is conducted through kakugi (Cabinet meetings). These are usually held twice a week on Tuesday and Friday mornings. Kakugi are where formal decisions are made and are sometimes followed by less formal meetings where cabinet members discuss issues. In the past, deliberations at these meetings were a secret. Abe actually deserves credit for opening this process up, with formal minutes now being kept and even published on the internet for at least some meetings. Those that are available, however, reveal most Cabinet proceedings to be short formalities lasting less than 10 minutes despite apparently accomplishing a great deal. For example, a meeting held on Nov. 10 generated two pages worth of minutes of deliberations and covered 36 matters for approval, all of which passed. As such meetings go, it was a long one, lasting from 10:01 to 10:15 a.m.

Cabinet decisions (kakugikettei) are required for much government business, including promulgation of laws, treaties, appointments of high-ranking bureaucrats and SDF personnel, formal responses to the pesky questions asked by opposition Diet members (as is their constitutional prerogative), and anything the prime minister feels appropriate to put before the body. Individual ministers can also put before the Cabinet matters that are within their individual authority to decide but for which they would like submit nonetheless.

Matters decided at the Nov. 10 meeting included receiving an ambassador from Nigeria, approval of several regulations relating to the My Number system as well as satellite launching, a number of personnel matters including the transfer of several Japanese ambassadors as well as a trip abroad by the health, welfare and labor minister. Also approved was the award of honors to a local postmaster and 177 other worthy citizens. The minutes also show the Cabinet receiving a report on foreign aid.

Even twice-weekly meetings do not suffice. Additional matters are passed through circular resolutions signed by the Cabinet members. According to longstanding tradition, Cabinet decisions are approved by members using flowery kaō brushstroke signatures. By my count, the Cabinet held 103 kakugi meetings in 2017 and made additional decisions through circular resolutions 29 times.

All Cabinet decisions are unanimous, a reflection of the constitutional mandate that Cabinets be collectively responsible to the Diet. This represents a rejection of the prewar system where ministers of state were individually responsible only to the Emperor, which made for weak governments and poor decision making.

Many decisions made by the Cabinet are formally implemented by the Emperor, albeit symbolically. Constitutionally, the Emperor is responsible for a large range of “acts in matters of state on behalf of the people.” These include promulgating laws and Cabinet orders, appointing top officials and judges and so forth. All are done with the “advice and approval” of the Cabinet. Thus, many of the matters substantively decided by the Cabinet generate a document (called a jōsōshorui) that is sent in a lacquer box to His Majesty for his signature and, where appropriate, affixing of the Imperial seal. This alone keeps the octogenarian monarch busy and tied to the palace on a schedule that matches those of Cabinet meetings.

In 2017, he had to execute 955 jōsōshorui. The number for the first 29 years of his reign tops 30,000. No wonder he wants to abdicate! How many changes in Cabinets and ministers occur between now and when he finally gets to in April 2019 remains to be seen.