Civil servants uneasy as DPJ plots change in power game

U.K.-style tack eyed to dilute bureaucracy


When vice farm minister Michio Ide in June criticized the Democratic Party of Japan’s plans to subsidize farmers’ income as unrealistic, DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama quickly fired back.

“Bureaucrats need to be fair and neutral,” Hatoyama said, adding that if bureaucrats in Britain had made such remarks, “they’d be sacked.”

The incident highlighted the marked discord rising between the civil servants and the DPJ, which is boldly vowing to place the administrative power of the government in the hands of politicians if the opposition party takes power in the Aug. 30 general election.

But questions remain on how the DPJ plans to do this, and how the transition from a half century of governance by the Liberal Democratic Party — and its mandarins in the bureaucracy — would be achieved.

In June, DPJ Deputy President Naoto Kan took a six-day trip to Britain to hold talks with officials from the government and opposition parties about power transitions and the relationship between bureaucrats and politicians.

The trip implies that the DPJ has a strong interest in adopting Britain’s Westminster system, in which power is concentrated in the Cabinet at the expense of the governing party and the bureaucracy.

In Britain, more than 100 members of the ruling party enter the government as Cabinet members or junior ministers. Policymaking is conducted based on the ruling party’s platform, with policy-proposing capabilities centralized in the Cabinet.

Bureaucrats are expected to remain neutral in shaping and supporting policies in Britain, where a firm two-party system produces frequent regime change.

Upon his return, Kan published his thoughts on the topic in the July issue of Chuo Koron magazine, where he outlined his plans on how to concentrate power in the Cabinet by abolishing the customary practices that allowed the bureaucracy to accumulate its vast power over the years.

Kan, who was Lower House chairman of the foreign policy council under Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa’s Cabinet in 1993 — the first non-LDP government in 38 years — got firsthand experience watching how regime change can go awry.

Hosokawa’s eight-party ruling coalition was often beset by policy differences that erupted between its center-right and leftist wings, and he abruptly resigned after less than a year in office as a looming personal financial scandal threatened to force him out.

In the magazine essay, Kan mentions how the soon-to-be-appointed prime minister’s secretary — a former bureaucrat — began arranging Hosokawa’s schedule even before the Diet elected him prime minister.

A similar thing happened when Kan was health minister in LDP Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s Cabinet in 1996. As soon as he was appointed, the ministry’s anonymous chief secretary quickly began arranging everything, from his personal secretary and press conference memos for the Cabinet’s formation, to his role in the Cabinet’s confirmation ceremony at the Imperial Palace.

Kan said in the essay that he now understands how bureaucrats begin scripting politicians’ every move from the earliest stages of a Cabinet. “It was all very strange,” he wrote.

To subvert that system, the DPJ has drafted proposals in its policy platform that would, theoretically at least, put administrative power in the hands of lawmakers.

The DPJ proposes appointing more than 100 members of the ruling party to Cabinet and sub-Cabinet level posts to strengthen the government. It also suggests that the chairman of the DPJ Policy Research Council double as a Cabinet member so policy decisions can be made from within the Cabinet.

By concentrating power within the government and the party, the DPJ said the preliminary review of legislation — a customary LDP practice that has allowed the vested interests of lawmakers and bureaucrats alike to influence legislation — would become unnecessary.

The DPJ plans on eliminating these processes as well as and banning vice ministers from expressing their opinions during press conferences, as vice farm minister Ide did in June.

Another plan central to the transition from bureaucratic to political rule is a national strategy office, a body under the direct control of the prime minister. This office would be responsible for compiling the budget and drafting foreign policy documents. Its staff would include both private-sector experts and bureaucrats.

In the past, for example, budgetary request guidelines were decided by the Finance Ministry. The DPJ says this authority would be handed over to the national strategy office.

The DPJ also plans on setting up an administrative reform council that would be responsible for cutting wasteful spending to secure the finances needed for developing policy.

During an interview July 31, Hatoyama said all of the party’s plans should be legislated simultaneously as the DPJ-led government starts up. He said he plans to kick things off by holding an extraordinary Diet session in the fall.

However, such a drastic overhaul of the administrative system is bound to face enormous resistance from the bureaucracy, analysts say.

Fukashi Horie, a well-versed political observer and professor emeritus at Keio University, said that although he believes the DPJ still hasn’t reached a practical conclusion on how to put its plans in motion, constant maneuvering by self-interested bureaucrats bent on influencing legislation is unavoidable.

“It’s already difficult enough to enact laws without loopholes,” Horie said, stressing that even if the DPJ succeeded in passing such bills through the Diet, the next issue would be how to control the bureaucrats.

“What will be required from now on is the ability to pin down and control the bureaucrats — to cajole them at times, or growl at them depending on the situation, to gain their cooperation — and that is a very difficult thing to do,” he said.

Jun Saito, a former DPJ Upper House legislator who teaches political science at Yale, added that it also will be important for the DPJ to establish realistic expectations among the public that it will be in power for at least the next few years, and possibly more.

“Systemic reforms take effort and time. Winning next year’s Upper House election will also be an important agenda item,” he said. “Because the LDP has owned the bureaucracy, DPJ politicians have lacked the resources to formulate policies. The DPJ will need to take time to get (its) policies actually enacted and implemented, but I believe (it) will get things done.”