Bureaucrats jockey to face new management

by and

The Liberal Democratic Party’s crushing election defeat brings to an end its cozy relationship with the bureaucracy, which the victorious Democratic Party of Japan has promised to weaken.

Thousands of ministry officials now must come to terms with the DPJ’s promised reforms, which include stripping the bureaucracy of its powers and control over the nation’s purse strings.

“Bureaucrats are on alert and some are feeling anxiety,” said Motofumi Asai, former head of the Foreign Ministry’s China section and current head of the Hiroshima Peace Institute. “(But) the DPJ won’t be able to accomplish much by labeling ministry officials as the root of all evil.”

During its half-century of almost unbroken rule in the Diet, the LDP constructed a solid partnership with the bureaucrats in Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district.

Some say the arrangement contributed to efficient governing and policymaking, but at the same time it gave the bureaucrats too much power and free rein.

Recent scandals involving the civil service have betrayed the public’s trust in the elite mandarins who set policy under successive LDP prime ministers, particularly the Social Insurance Agency’s pension record-keeping fiasco.

The DPJ’s rout of its rival in the Lower House came on its promise to voters to “dismantle Kasumigaseki” by dispatching more than 100 party members to Cabinet and sub-Cabinet posts.

The DPJ wants elected lawmakers to take the lead in policymaking, free of the bureaucracy’s vested interests.

One practice the DPJ plans to end is the twice-weekly powwow involving administrative vice ministers, who agree on all key government decisions that are conveyed to the regular Cabinet meetings that take place afterward.

To weaken the power of the top bureaucrats, the DPJ plans to put a stop to their pre-Cabinet gatherings.

Vice Foreign Minister Mitoji Yabunaka declined comment when asked about the DPJ plan.

“This is about how (the DPJ) will run the government, about how the policymaking process will be organized. And it is not appropriate for me to comment on the issue,” he told reporters last month.

The Foreign Ministry on the other hand has been quick to boost its affiliations with key DPJ lawmakers.

On July 21, the day Prime Minister Taro Aso dissolved the Lower House, the Foreign Ministry announced that Kanji Yamanouchi of the North American Affairs bureau would be named the Cabinet Secretariat counselor. Yamanouchi served as a secretary to DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama when he was deputy chief Cabinet secretary in 1993.

Vice Foreign Minister Yabunaka said the move had no ulterior motive, although the media described the appointment as the ministry’s attempt to secure its position with the new administration.

The Finance Ministry also appears to be preparing for the DPJ’s takeover.

Shunsuke Kagawa, former deputy director general of the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau, was appointed in July as deputy vice minister for policy planning and coordination.

In the late 1980s, Kagawa served as a secretary for then-Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Ichiro Ozawa. Ozawa, now one of the DPJ’s main players, was in the LDP at the time.

Shigeki Morinobu, a former ministry official and currently a professor on tax policy at Chuo Law School, knows Kagawa personally. He suggested Ozawa may like him as he is straightforward when making policy recommendations.

“He is a patriot,” Morinobu said. “In that sense, his opinion may match with Ozawa’s.”

The distance between Kasumigaseki bureaucrats and the DPJ is getting closer in other aspects as well.

A DPJ official said more senior government officials started frequenting the party’s meetings since the 2007 Upper House election, which saw the party lead the opposition camp to a majority in the chamber.

Ministries have sent deputy director generals, instead of mere division heads, to DPJ meetings, the official said.

These overtures aside, the bureaucrats’ dissonance with the DPJ still runs deep after their long reliance on getting LDP lawmakers to pass their government-sponsored bills.

“To be honest, I don’t know what the DPJ’s proposals on agriculture policy are,” a Foreign Ministry official in charge of trade negotiations said last week.

With an informal meeting of the World Trade Organization taking place in New Delhi beginning Wednesday, the DPJ is already running late on forming a united front.

Another senior Foreign Ministry official admitted not knowing much about the DPJ’s policies, indicating time will be needed for bureaucrats to get accustomed to the new management.

“Some embassy officials from neighboring countries have asked me about the DPJ and its policies,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But to be honest, I’m the one who needs to obtain inside information.”

Hiroshima Peace Institute’s Asai said there are many bureaucrats who believe the DPJ rule may be short-lived and the LDP will be back in the saddle.

“It comes down to the fact that the DPJ does not have strong, consistent policies. If they can’t quickly make tangible progress, it could disillusion the public,” the former Foreign Ministry official said.

“Some bureaucrats are alarmed by the change, but the calm majority will wait and see which way the wind blows before deciding how to associate with the DPJ,” he added.

Gerald L. Curtis, a political science professor at Columbia University, said to get their business done, the DPJ politicians will have to use the bureaucracy, because it has the expertise needed to run the nation.

“The DPJ is not calling for the destruction (of the) bureaucratic system,” Curtis said. “If they did, then . . . there would be no way to make policy. They have to make use of the bureaucracy.”