The Diet began deliberating a bill this month aimed at curbing “amakudari,” the practice of giving retiring top bureaucrats lucrative jobs in private-sector firms and quasi-government entities in the business sectors they oversee.

The notorious practice, literally “descent from heaven” — a phrase well reflecting the public’s traditional deference to authority — has survived for more than half a century despite repeated instances of corruption.

Yet the current efforts to curb the practice have already been overshadowed. Some politicians say the reform bill may not clear the Diet before the current session ends in June due to lack of time.

Following are some questions and answers about amakudari, as well as efforts to reform the civil service:

What are the negative effects of amakudari?

Amakudari has been linked to bid-rigging and price-fixing of government projects by the private sector and semi-government entities, where ex-bureaucrats land cozy positions and call the shots, sometimes helping to decide the recipients of lucrative contracts that prove costly to taxpayers.

In a recent example, two officials of the Japan Green Resources Agency, an affiliate of the Forestry Agency, were arrested just last week along with four employees of four contractors over their alleged involvement in rigging public works bids for forest roads. As of 2005, the affiliate had hired 256 former bureaucrats, mostly from the Forestry Agency.

2003 and 2004 saw 23 bridge builders implicated in rigged construction bids involving a retired Japan Highway Public Corp. official serving as an advisor at one of the firms.

Amakudari has squandered taxpayer money in other areas. For example, semi-government entities, many of which are unneeded, have been created to hire retired bureaucrats, pay them and their staff high salaries and provide such perks as chauffeured limousines, before giving them millions of yen in further retirement allowances after only a few years.

Why can’t the government simply ban amakudari?

One underlying reason for the years of inaction is that the political system relies too much on bureaucrats in terms of policymaking, despite pronouncements by lawmakers that they want to make policy themselves.

Politicians fear that shutting the door to high-paying positions for retiring top bureaucrats after they’ve served for years at modest pay could result in an immediate mass exodus of civil servants to the private sector and be a disincentive for the country’s best and brightest to consider serving the government in the future.

Why is it taking so much time to reform the civil service?

It has much to do with its seniority-based nature. When bureaucrats turn 52 or 53, they face a declining number of positions for promotion and many are effectively forced to leave. Before they turn 60, only a handful of top bureaucrats can stay on. Thus, newcomers to the bureaucracy are aware they have a golden parachute if they don’t reach the top rung in the government.

This is why ministries and agencies arrange new jobs for retiring officials to unofficially reward their years of service.

There are also legal difficulties in reforming the system. Ministries and agencies can’t simply fire bureaucrats, because they are legally protected unless they commit a crime.

On the other hand, civil servants are denied basic labor rights — including unionizing, collective bargaining and striking.

Many politicians oppose giving such rights to bureaucrats partly because lawmakers want to maintain the current slavelike status of civil servants. When the Diet is in session, young bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki, Tokyo’s civil service center, work night and day to prepare Cabinet ministers’ answers for questions posed by opposition lawmakers.

How many officials receive new posts via amakudari?

According to research data released April 6 by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, almost 70 percent of 1,968 bureaucrats who were helped by their ministries and agencies to find jobs from 2004 to 2006 ended up in companies with close links to their organizations. The figure compares with 14,000 officials who left their jobs based on the seniority system during the same period. Of the 1,346 amakudari bureaucrats, more than 500 were from the land ministry, which oversees the construction industry.

Administrative reform minister Yoshimi Watanabe said he believes the number of bureaucrats who landed amakudari positions was under-reported.

What does the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s bill propose and will it work?

The bill calls for the government to create a job center under the direct supervision of the Cabinet secretariat by the end of 2008, and in the next three years ministries would gradually hand over the task of helping their bureaucrats land new jobs. Critics, however, say this will only make the amakudari route more obscure and no less prevalent.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the new system would eradicate “coerced” amakudari, but the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, said the LDP bill would effectively authorize amakudari.

The DPJ has submitted a counterproposal. Under its bill, the government would end the early retirement of bureaucrats and not create a job center. The LDP said the DPJ measure would only increase employment costs.

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