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Japan’s powerful government personnel body blamed amid cronyism scandals

JIJI, Staff Report

The government’s powerful personnel bureau has been criticized as a likely factor in making administrative officials excessively sensitive to the wishes of the Prime Minister’s Office.

This attitude seems to be behind a recent string of cronyism scandals, including those related to a state land plot sold with an unusually heavy discount to Moritomo Gakuen, once linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife, Akie, critics say.

Japan established the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs in May 2014 to concentrate authority in appointing some 600 top officials across the government, a responsibility that was previously held by ministries and agencies.

The bureau, under the chief cabinet secretary, compiles lists of candidates for top administrative posts. The appointments are finalized through talks that include the secretary and the prime minister.

Japan introduced the bureau “in order to reduce the negative effects of compartmentalized administration and realize strategic staff assignment,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Tuesday.

He denied any connection between the powerful personnel body and the Finance Ministry’s falsification of public documents related to the nationalist school operator.

Critics say the bureau has made it easier for the Prime Minister’s Office to take the policy steps it wants and that the new organization may have worked to encourage administrative staff to fawn over the office.

“To us, promotion meant a race in which participants compete with each other with long-range grand designs for the state,” an executive at a government agency for economic affairs said. “Now, it has turned into a race in which participants compete over how well they can serve the chief cabinet secretary.”

In the document falsification scandal, the Finance Ministry deleted the name of Akie Abe and related descriptions from some of the papers on Moritomo Gakuen. Opposition lawmakers suspect the unusual land deal itself may have been facilitated by officials surmising the wishes of the Abe administration.

Another cronyism scandal centers around a plan to set up a veterinary medicine faculty in a special deregulated zone by Kake Educational Institution, run by an old friend of the prime minister.

Many critics suspect government officials took into account these ties during the process of screening the plan. Former vice education minister Kihei Maekawa criticized the Abe administration on the issue.

The education ministry has recently come under fire for making unusually detailed inquiries on a lecture Maekawa gave at a municipal school in Nagoya last month.

The ministry interacted with lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party when making the inquiries to the junior high school via the local education board.

“Bureaucrats look to the Prime Minister’s Office instead of the ministers,” former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba has said, referring to problems with the personnel bureau.

The entity “has created an atmosphere in which bureaucrats fawn over the administration,” Kohei Otsuka, president of the opposition Democratic Party, has said. “It is becoming necessary to review the personnel bureau.”

“I’m worried that the leadership of the Prime Minister’s Office has become too strong and that administrative staff are afraid to act,” said Nobuo Ishihara, a former deputy chief cabinet secretary.

“I hope the Prime Minister’s Office will take steps to ensure officials can speak their minds without hesitation,” he said, questioning the current relationship between bureaucrats and politicians.