Yoshio Hachiro’s stint as the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry in the new Yoshihiko Noda administration was not the briefest cabinet assignment on record, but it was certainly one of the most controversial. News outlets reported that it was “public outrage” over two remarks he made which forced Hachiro to quit. In the absence of evidence, we have to take their word for it.

One of the remarks, that the area around the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactor was a “town of death,” supposedly offended the people who had been evacuated from the region, but the media have been describing the place in similar terms for months now. The Japanese Twittersphere is still buzzing that it wasn’t the public that was offended by Hachiro’s remark but rather Tokyo Electric Power Company, which is still working out a payment system for residents harmed by the accident. Hachiro stated at his news conference when he assumed the METI position that “in principle” he would work to phase out nuclear energy.

Hachiro’s other transgression, a joke about contaminating reporters with radiation after returning from Fukushima, is more problematic. It’s obvious that at the time he allegedly made the joke Hachiro thought what he said was off-the-record, but as journalist Masaru Sato commented on Fuji TV, the ground rules for what’s on- and what’s off-record in Japan are “vague,” and since every media outlet printed or broadcasted a different quote it’s not clear exactly what Hachiro said or who first decided to report it. During his resignation news conference he apologized without actually owning up to the joke. One unidentified reporter interrupted Hachiro in a derisive tone and was shouted down by another journalist. A Kyodo News editor pointed out on TBS that news conferences are for asking questions, not for “prosecuting public figures.” The joke, if he made it, was certainly careless, but given Hachiro’s gregarious personality it likely sprang from a misplaced sense of camaraderie rather than from any cynical impulse. What he didn’t understand is that the press, no matter how friendly they might seem, is waiting for such a moment since gaffes are so fun to report.

TV personality Daniel Kahl tweeted that Hachiro’s remarks were “insensitive” and that he “must be a scion of some political dynasty.” In fact, Hachiro is one of the few people in the Diet who did not have political connections, family or otherwise. He worked in a Hokkaido agricultural cooperative and later stood for election under the banner of the Social Democratic Party. During his political career he has always professed an affinity for farmers that was more sincere than that of most party politicians, who tend to look upon the agricultural sector as a constituency ripe for exploitation. When reproducing the “town of death” quote, the mainstream press neglected to report the next sentence Hachiro uttered: “We have to change this situation.”

Japan is run by elites — powerful bureaucrats, corporate leaders, people with pedigrees — and while many other countries operate under similar sorts of regimes, Japan’s ruling class is empty of ideology, unless you consider money the manifestation of a particular philosophy.

Take the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, a private educational establishment set up in 1979 by the late Konosuke Matsushita, founder of the Panasonic group, as a kind of finishing school for future Japanese leaders. Prime Minister Noda is a graduate, as are 37 other Diet members, 27 from the Democratic Party of Japan and 10 from the Liberal Democratic Party. The media are busy analyzing the institute in order to isolate the philosophy of the new administration, which isn’t very difficult. Matsushita was a fiscal conservative and supporter of a strong alliance with the United States, but his main purpose for the institute was to give bright young people without any connections a means of getting into politics.

The institute has helped unconnected political aspirants gain office at both the national and local levels, and in the process has itself become a bastion of elitism. The school receives about 200 applications a year and accepts a half dozen. One of the truisms about elites is that they only identify with other elites. According to a Myojo University professor interviewed in Tokyo Shimbun, national assembly persons, whether they got in through a family connection or Matsushita’s institute, are instilled with the “Nagatacho logic,” which says that all political activity is based on who you agree with. That fact of political life explains the obsession within the DPJ over which members support kingpin Ichiro Ozawa. Matsushita Institute grads may learn how to cultivate their leadership qualities by cleaning toilets and perfecting their calligraphy, but in the end it all comes down to how to accumulate influence, which means money.

It’s no secret that bureaucrats control the central government, but it goes further. Thirty-one of the current 47 prefectural governors used to be employed in various federal ministries, and many were elected with the help of local private sector concerns they worked with while they were bureaucrats. The governors of Saga and Hokkaido are former METI officials whose families have ties to energy companies that go way back. Both are now working to get nuclear reactors in their prefectures back online.

Policy is decided from on high, but the elitism of the average politician is only useful in internecine matters: Who’s on top this month? It’s why Naoto Kan was so poisonously vilified, not only by the opposition, but also by lawmakers in his own party. He was no more inept than any other prime minister of the last three decades, but he was the first — and probably the last — prime minister who entered politics through a non-government organization. Kan started out as a community organizer. That just doesn’t happen, and the elites, which include the people controlling the media, couldn’t stand it, so what chance did Yoshio Hachiro have?

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.