A year ago, the minister in charge of administrative reform at the time, Taro Kono, launched an investigation into why central government jobs had become unattractive. Bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki, the Tokyo district where government ministries and agencies are located, work a punishing amount of overtime, and the younger ones, even those on career tracks, have been quitting in increasing numbers. Moreover, fewer university graduates are seeking employment in the sector.

According to an Oct. 8 article in the Asahi Shimbun, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga decided last March to pursue a new policy for government employees by looking at the hours assigned at each ministry or agency and then determining how much overtime is necessary and whether such adjustments can be addressed under current budget guidelines.

The amount of overtime budgeted for a given year is based on the amount of overtime paid the previous year. These increases ranged from 1.1% to 3.8% over the past five years. However, when asked how much more overtime they really needed, ministries’ and agencies’ requests average about 18%, with the highest proposal, 47.4%, coming from the Environment Ministry.

Laws governing overtime apply to the private sector. The central government follows special rules set by the National Personnel Authority that say workers ordered to do overtime should be paid for the number of hours they actually work. But in reality, since overtime is already budgeted, there are limits to how much overtime pay workers can receive. Many end up doing “sābisu zangyō,” or “overtime without pay.” Kono said that much government overtime is “built into” the pay structure. In the private sector, such discrepancies are a common source of friction between workers and management, and the latest revision to the Labor Standards Act is supposed to resolve this problem, but for civil servants the matter is still being worked out.

Ideally, the government should reduce bureaucrats’ workloads through measures that increase efficiency. However, a separate article from the Asahi Shimbun on Oct. 8 explains why streamlining is difficult. About 32% of career-track bureaucrats in their 20s perform more than 80 hours of overtime a month; 17% more than 100 hours. One bureaucrat in his 30s said he once worked 200 extra hours, and when he calculated how much he earned per hour that month, it was less than the minimum wage. All overtime is recorded by supervisors who have to stay within budget restrictions, so not all the hours these bureaucrats work is recorded. It was this aspect of the problem that Kono wanted to investigate last year.

When the National Personnel Authority surveyed bureaucrats who started their jobs this year, 80.7% said that the best way to attract capable employees is to reduce overtime. The government’s solution is to first understand exactly how much overtime these people work, and then reduce it through digitalization, teleworking and outsourcing. However, as Asahi points out, overtime for the Kasumigaseki minions is special. It is not simply work they cannot finish during regular hours. It is, in fact, added work pegged to specific circumstances, meaning it can’t be done during normal working hours. Bureaucrats do their regular eight-hour day and then remain at the office to perform this extra work, which is irregular but also predictable.

This work is related to advance tsūkoku (notifications) from ruling party lawmakers who, in turn, have received them from opposition party lawmakers. The notifications are questions the opposition plans to ask in the Diet, Japan’s parliament, regarding a piece of legislation or a contentious issue. The notifications are passed on to the relevant bureaucrats who must come up with answers as well as potential responses to other questions that could come up. The work involves research and then explaining the issue to lawmakers who may know little about it.

Typically, these notifications come in the evening, after the day’s Diet session has concluded, for discussion the next day. As explained by opposition lawmaker Koichi Yamauchi on his homepage last year, in principle notifications should be received by the appropriate office 48 hours prior to their subject being discussed in the Diet, but that almost never happens. If it did, excessive overtime wouldn’t be a problem.

As one official in the finance ministry told Asahi, as long as this “behavior” doesn’t change, there is little the bureaucracy can do unilaterally about excess overtime, which is why, presumably, each agency and ministry is putting in requests for large increases in overtime for the next budget. They know the Diet can’t function without tsūkoku, and the government, it seems, has decided it has to pay for it.

Tsūkoku is why Diet discussions have a scripted structure: Questions and answers are determined beforehand. If someone asks something spontaneously, their interlocutor has to be prepared, but sometimes when lawmakers are asked questions they aren’t ready for, they get angry and ask why they weren’t warned about such questions, implying that they expect the opposition to maintain the illusion of decorum. That’s why when tsūkoku leak to the media, it’s a problem, since it alerts the public to the fact that Diet debates are basically theater.

In a 2019 article for the Japan Center for Economic Research, former bureaucrat Takao Komine explains the elaborate process of submitting and following through with notifications, and the amount of work involved is impressive, so maybe there’s no solution to the overtime problem. It would help to have lawmakers versed in a particular matter debate on their own. However, ministry heads are chosen by the ruling party not because of their expertise in the relevant field, but due to political affiliations. Opposition lawmakers don’t have the same level of access to bureaucrats, so they must arrive for debate as prepared as possible. Whoever initiates debate needs to know what they are talking about, but by that token why maintain the pretense that ruling party lawmakers are the government? After all, there are always bureaucrats on hand during debate to answer questions themselves, since they’re the ones running the show.

See www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

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