The road from bureaucrat to politician is well-paved.
Some of Japan’s most influential prime ministers have trod that path: Shigeru Yoshida’s career began in the former Internal Affairs Ministry; Hayato Ikeda was once a Finance Ministry official; Eisaku Sato had his origins in the former Railways Ministry.
In Sunday’s general election, 94 people who once served as government officials are aspiring to follow in their predecessors’ footsteps. Of them, 57 are running for the Liberal Democratic Party and 25 for the Democratic Party of Japan.
Some, like Satsuki Katayama of the Finance Ministry, were head-hunted by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi himself, in an effort to defeat former LDP members who voted against his postal privatization bills.
“I’d been asked three times before to run; but this time, I thought, ‘This is it,’ ” said Katayama, who was the ministry’s first female budget commissioner and oversaw the defense budget last year.
Undoubtedly, she and her colleagues are considered the cream of the crop. They’ve graduated from the best schools and learned the ropes of political wheedling and give-and-take as public officials. They know who at the ministries are best qualified to help shape effective policies.
But are they too close to the powers-that-be to effect change?
Yes, according to Jiro Yamaguchi, professor of politics at Hokkaido University. Although a few may be running because they truly wish to change the status quo, most are unlikely to offend colleagues and superiors at government ministries and agencies, he said.
“The small government Mr. Koizumi is talking about is impossible to realize as long as politicians rely wholly on the bureaucrats for crafting policy — bureaucrats-turned politicians are just a reflection of that dependency,” he said.
Even if they are seen as advocates of slashing public spending and whittling down the civil service, like Finance Ministry-bred Katayama, their ties within the bureaucracy will make them helpless in the fight against “amakudari,” the practice of retired bureaucrats taking jobs at companies they once regulated, he added.
This “descent-from-heaven” phenomenon and deep ties between public servants and the industries they oversee have been blamed for the seemingly endless number of bid-rigging scandals and the high cost of public works in Japan.
There is also another story behind the exodus of bureaucrats into politics.
“The power and prestige of bureaucrats, especially those at the Finance Ministry, have plummeted,” said Michio Muramatsu, professor of political science at Gakushuin University, pointing to the corruption scandals in the 1990s among the bureaucratic elite as a main cause.
The belief that policymaking was in the hands of brilliant technocrats was further shattered by the government’s mismanagement of the banking sector’s bad-debt problem, he added.
Muramatsu compared policy structure in 1986 and 2002, and found that influence had shifted. In the past, civil servants might have been able to persuade politicians to approve a bill they drafted. Now, the prime minister’s advisory panel, the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, the Cabinet, and ministers wholly shape policy, he said.
“Hunger for influence is why so many bureaucrats decide to become politicians,” said a 27-year-old Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry official who will be entering a master’s in business administration program at Columbia University this fall.
“They also see politicians every day and see their limitations, so they think — ‘Hey, if he can be elected, I can, too.’ “
Nevertheless, it would be naive to assume the bureaucracy has been stripped of all its power.
Bureaucrats script the majority of responses by Cabinet ministers in Diet debates. Hirotaka Otaki, a member of the DPJ’s policy research committee, has alleged that most of the ideas in the LDP’s election campaign platform were penned by bureaucrats, mainly from the Finance Ministry.
But the DPJ itself has shown it cannot ignore the bureaucrats.
In May, DPJ leader Katsuya Okada said in a televised interview that the reason his party had not come up with an alternative plan to Koizumi’s postal privatization bills was “because the bureaucrats wouldn’t help us.”
But the tide is definitely turning, according to Muramatsu.
Both the LDP and DPJ are preparing to set up independent think tanks by year’s end.
Until now, the bureaucracy was effectively Japan’s largest think tank, which would contract out projects to 295 smaller private and public-sector think tanks.
With the right people, the parties’ think tanks may be able to bypass civil servants entirely, the professor said.
In the meantime, the exodus from the Kasumigaseki center of bureaucracy to the world of politics is likely to continue, many experts say.
“I’m very ambivalent,” Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki told a recent news conference. “On the one hand, it means stronger ties between Nagata-cho (the political heart) and Kasumigaseki. On the other hand, it means loss of young talent for the ministry.”
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