Last July, elite bureaucrat Shin Yasunobe sent shock waves throughout government offices in Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district by announcing his resignation from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.
Ending his career on a high by helping draft a charter on information technology endorsed by the Group of Eight leaders at the Okinawa Summit the same month, 45-year-old Yasunobe left his promising future in government behind to pursue IT-related businesses.
“Frankly, business was more appealing to me,” Yasunobe explained in a recent interview.
His resignation dealt yet another severe blow to Japan’s once formidable bureaucracy, the machinery of which is now having to deal with the loss of many of its most able people as well as not being able to recruit the brightest and best new graduates.
Since September, Yasunobe has taken charge of Stanford University’s Kyoto-based venture, the Stanford Japan Center-Research Institute for International Studies.
Yas Create Inc., a business consulting firm Yasunobe set up in August, is getting off the ground in Tokyo, while he also serves as economic adviser to the Okayama and Mie prefectural governments and lectures at Waseda University.
While serving as director of MITI’s Electronics Policy Division, Yasunobe personally helped two startup IT firms list on the Mothers section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange by giving them advice.
“But such an indirect way (of doing business) was as far as I could go and there are many rules restricting bureaucrats (from dealing in such economic activities),” Yasunobe said.
Although Yasunobe said he himself had a relatively comfortable and fulfilling life at MITI, for many civil servants being a bureaucrat is less rewarding and more frustrating than it used to be.
“All my colleagues were people who opted to proceed on the bureaucratic path, turning down better-paying jobs offered by the private sector” after graduating from prestigious universities, he said.
“That was because they took greater pride in engaging in such noble work as toiling for the nation,” he added.
However, that sense of pride has been overshadowed by a loss of confidence and motivation over the past decade amid what Yasunobe describes as society’s “bureaucrat-bashing.”
All the while, the image of bureaucrats has been tainted by a chain of scandals stemming from their cozy relationships with politicians and industry.
“From mass media to politics, the trend of the times is to defy whatever bureaucrats say,” Yasunobe said. “In such circumstances, it’s no surprise that bureaucratic jobs have lost their appeal to many people.”
Yasunobe said the turning point in the general perception of bureaucrats was the formation of a coalition government in 1993 by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, which effectively ended the single-party rule enjoyed by the Liberal Democratic Party since 1955.
By around that time, Japan’s social and economic structures had also reached an impasse, leading to the increasing tendency within society to break from the status quo in everything from politics and bureaucracy to business, he said.
But while questioning this trend of “change for change’s sake,” Yasunobe at the same time said the bureaucracy itself should break down barriers and encourage a freer flow of personnel to keep its organizations vibrant.
One ideal way would be the introduction of a so-called “revolving door” system such as that adopted in the United States, under which drastic personnel reshuffles are made with changes in leadership, he said.
Would he be tempted to return to government if he was offered a high-level post with better pay?
“It’s not for me,” he said. “Besides, the government should try to bring out the best in the bureaucrats active now by making the rigid personnel and pay systems more flexible.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.