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Japan’s central bureaucracy will be reorganized, effective Jan. 6, to mark the start of a new administrative system. The reform will have significant influence on local governments and the public, too. It is part of efforts to restructure Japanese society, which has been bound by webs of restrictions and customs for much of the second half of the 20th century. Collusive ties among politicians, bureaucrats and business executives have aggravated the problem.

The basic question is: Will this reform make Japan a fairer and freer society? At stake is the prestige of three successive Japanese administrations: those of Prime Ministers Ryutaro Hashimoto, Keizo Obuchi and Yoshiro Mori.

The reform will cut the number of ministries and agencies from the present 22 to 12 and establish a Cabinet office. It will also create some mammoth government offices. The National Land and Transportation Ministry will combine the Transport Ministry, the Construction Ministry, the National Land Agency and the Hokkaido Development Agency; the General Affairs Ministry will integrate the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry, the Home Affairs Ministry and the Management and Coordination Agency.

As the government gears up for the reform, bureaucrats are fighting each other to retain top posts and to protect their shares in government activities and budget outlays. Unless it succeeds in slimming down the bloated government in terms of budget outlays, power and personnel, the reform will fail to achieve its stated purpose of boosting efficient administration and preventing rigidity in government finances.

The most important purpose of the reorganization is strengthening Cabinet functions. The reform will establish the prime minister’s authority to make proposals at Cabinet meetings on foreign policy, national security, economic and fiscal policies and the government budget. It will create a Cabinet office under the prime minister to create and coordinate fundamental policies.

The reform is intended to replace bureaucratic leadership with political leadership in national affairs. The Cabinet office will have a group of experts to advise the prime minister on formulating budget and macroeconomic policies and will deprive Finance Ministry bureaucrats of budget-making authority. The group, which will be headed by the prime minister, will include Cabinet ministers, academics and private-sector officials as well, to reflect outside views. This advisory group must function as intended if the Cabinet office is to succeed in enhancing political leadership in national affairs.

Prime Minister Mori, in a move to strengthen his leadership, has also commissioned a group of officials from the government and the ruling coalition of the Democratic Party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party to draft a fiscal 2001 budget. If this group continues to operate after the government reorganization goes into effect next January, it will weaken the influence of the advisory group in the Cabinet office. This will frustrate the declared purpose of the administrative reform — the strengthening of Cabinet functions. The group of government and ruling-party officials should be abolished when the government reorganization goes into effect.

The reform will abolish the post of parliamentary vice minister at each ministry and agency. In the new system, Cabinet ministers will be assisted by vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries who are appointed from among the Diet members. As part of the reform, the Diet has already discontinued the system of allowing bureaucrats to answer questions on behalf of ministers before Diet committees.

The government reform will introduce political leadership in policymaking. To prevent collusion among politicians, bureaucrats and business executives and to realize effective administration, politicians must be well-versed in policy matters.

One serious problem is the traditional practice of prime ministers appointing Cabinet ministers from lists of candidates submitted by LDP factions. If this practice is continued, it will never be possible to introduce political leadership in national affairs, the major purpose of the government reform. The evils of the practice were most recently exposed in a payoff scandal involving former Financial Reconstruction Commission Chairman Kimitaka Kuze.

Administrative reform will not end with the reorganization of the central bureaucracy; it will not be complete without restructuring government-backed corporations. The ruling coalition plans to introduce a bill in the Diet for abolishing all 78 such corporations. If necessary, however, some corporations will be privatized or replaced by independent public organizations. The original proposal called for abolishing all government-backed corporations within five years, but it is likely to be a long time before differences of opinion in the government and the ruling alliance are settled.

Government-funded corporations benefit from large budget outlays and fiscal investments and loans. They are a hotbed of vested interests and support the much-maligned practice of retired government officials taking up high posts.

The government’s Administrative Reform Council, chaired by then Prime Minister Hashimoto, said in its final report, published in 1997, that a 21st-century administrative system must be comprehensive, strategically oriented, flexible, transparent, efficient and simple.

The reorganization in itself will not end bureaucratic leadership in national affairs — which the government council’s final report said created a system for national mobilization in the 50 years after the end of World War II — unless it is backed by political leadership and clear thinking about Japan’s future.

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