Ex-bureaucrats bent on reform

Tapping inside knowledge of faults to fix what ails the nation


A few years before the end of the Edo Period in 1865, prominent samurai Sakamoto Ryoma founded a private navy and the Kameyama Shachu trading company in Nagasaki and led the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate.

Last month, inspired by his effort more than 140 years ago to lead Japan into a new era, Ichiro Asahina, 37, left the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and established the Tokyo policy think tank Aoyama Shachu along with fellow former bureaucrat Hiromichi Endo.

Founded Nov. 15, Ryoma’s birthday and the anniversary of his death under the old lunar calendar, the think tank’s stated goal is to create a grand strategy for Japan’s future.

Seven years ago, Asahina and Endo, a 36-year-old former education ministry official, joined 19 other young bureaucrats to launch the policy study group Project K. The K stands for Kasumigaseki, the nation’s bureaucratic center, “kaikaku” (reform) and “komuin” (public servant).

Since then, the group has proposed various reforms of the government and bureaucracy, offering insider views on problems surrounding the policymaking bodies. Some proposals were also presented to political leaders, including Prime Minister Naoto Kan and former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

“We have made certain achievements, but we saw limits,” Asahina, now CEO of Aoyama Shachu, said in a recent interview.

“Even though we say we should change Kasumigaseki, it is hard to gain . . . the support of politicians and the general public because many people think Kasumigaseki isn’t directly linked to their lives,” Asahina said.

“Ideally speaking, there should be many think tanks and politicians who can put together various bills by themselves. But now, there is no other way but to utilize bureaucrats to create better policies.”

He said his group isn’t just trying to reform Kasumigaseki but also revitalize the nation as a whole.

Asahina and Endo quit the bureaucracy so they could act with more freedom. As civil servants they had to maintain a neutrality with politicians and businesses, but as private citizens they can now openly call for support from like-minded politicians and others in the private sector.

Manabu Kamiya, 36, a former education ministry bureaucrat and now general manager of Advantage Risk Management Co.’s corporate planning department, has joined Aoyama Shachu as a partner.

“Government ministries lack vision and strategy, and it is hard to assess such inability and change from inside. So when I heard that Asahina and Endo were leaving the ministries, I wanted to support them,” said Kamiya, 36, a longtime friend of Asahina.

Aoyama Shachu plans various policy proposals, but it will also help politicians create platforms and encourage reform-minded lawmakers by supporting their policies. The think tank will offer “juku” (small private school-type) lectures to nurture future leaders, while providing consulting services for young entrepreneurs.

As their first order of business, they are looking at the elections for governors, mayors and assemblies across the nation next spring, hoping to work for candidates who need policy advice.

Project K’s various proposals were published as a book “Kasumigaseki Kozo Kaikaku (Structural Reform of Kasumigaseki) — Project K” in 2005. Ideas in the book include setting up a national strategy headquarters that would serve as a clearinghouse for policies and determine priorities based on national interests instead of the individual goals of the different ministries.

It also proposed reviewing, with help from the private sector, the budget requests submitted by ministries.

Both concepts came to life as the National Policy Unit and the Government Revitalization Unit’s “jigyo shiwake” budget-screening instituted by the Democratic Party of Japan.

Although some reform efforts have been achieved under the DPJ government, Asahina and Endo felt they needed to speed up such efforts and get the ball rolling from the outside, as Japan faces serious problems such as a shrinking population, ballooning national debt, rising unemployment among young people and high suicide rate.

The remaining Project K members will support their efforts from inside Kasumigaseki, and Aoyama Shachu plans to form a network of young business and nonprofit organization leaders early next year as part of their quest to create a better Japan for the next generation.

“Active business leaders are much more concerned about Japan’s future. So by linking with them, we will support politicians who can push reforms,” Asahina said. “We hope to create a network that can be called ‘young people’s Keidanren’ or ‘Project J’ (Japan).”

Such young leaders include Tomoyuki Yuasa, board member and partner of Revamp Corp., whose business is to resuscitate companies, and Daigo Sato, who founded the NPO Dot-JP, which set up Japan’s first political internship program, Asahina said.

“We want to make Japan a better place 20 or 30 years down the road, and though today’s young people will be the main actors to push the reform, we hope to gain support of people in their 50s, 60s and 70s,” Endo said.