The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is facing ongoing calls for a split amid the coronavirus crisis, 20 years after its merger as part of sweeping central government reorganization.
On Jan. 6, 2000, the government realigned its 23 agencies into 13. The move included the merger of the Health and Welfare Ministry and the Labor Ministry.
The merged ministry has often taken the brunt of criticism from advocates of additional central government reorganization, partly because many problems and scandals have occurred there.
At a news conference last month, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato made only a general remark about additional reorganization.
"It's important to secure a system that can deal with tasks while planning a necessary review in accordance with the changing times," Kato said.
The 2000 reorganization was based on an initiative set out by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who aimed to strengthen the functions of the Cabinet and break down bureaucratic sectionalism.
Besides the merged health ministry, the Cabinet Office was created out of some existing groups and tasked with planning important policies and coordinating between various agencies.
The government also launched the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, headed by the prime minister. It decides the basic policy for state budget compilation.
The sweeping reorganization "prepared tools necessary to end problems caused by the compartmentalized administration and made it easier for the prime minister to exercise leadership," said Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan executive Kenji Eda. He served Hashimoto as secretary to the prime minister.
"It has become easier to cooperate with other agencies" thanks to the realignment, a senior government official said.
In the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, some members have called for a split of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, which has had a number of problems and scandals including over key labor statistics. In addition, the ministry covers a wider range of areas than other agencies.
"Its work related to health, including responses to the novel coronavirus, is increasing," a veteran LDP lawmaker said. "It's better to split the labor division (from the health division)."
Discussions on the split have been making little progress recently, however. This is partly because many LDP lawmakers think a higher priority should be placed on the fight against the raging epidemic.
"Once the coronavirus crisis settles down, we must strive without a break to discuss the matter," administrative reform minister Taro Kono told a recent news conference.
Regarding the current administrative structure, critics see problems with the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, launched in May 2014 under the administration of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Through the bureau, the Prime Minister's Office takes a firm grip on the appointments of senior officials at each agency, causing bureaucrats to curry favor with the prime minister by acting on what they believe are his wishes in a practice called sontaku, the critics say.
"Only yes men are left at the top level of government agencies," an LDP executive said.
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