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A slimmed-down national government debuted Jan. 6, when Japan’s central bureaucracy was reorganized. The realignment cut the number of ministries and agencies, under the Cabinet Office, to 12 from the previous 22.

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori announced at a news conference that the reorganization was intended to restore to the national government flexibility in policymaking and implementation. The government says the reorganization represents Japan’s third major reform in modern history, following the Meiji Restoration and radical reform undertaken after World War II.

But true reform — replacing bureaucratic supervision with political leadership — has yet to take place. It is up to the political leadership to determine whether administrative reform will touch off sweeping fiscal, economic, social welfare and educational reforms.

Political leadership means that the Cabinet under the prime minister takes charge of policymaking. As part of the government reorganization, the prime minister is authorized to make policy proposals at Cabinet meetings, and the Cabinet Office, which oversees ministries and agencies, is empowered to coordinate their policies.

The Cabinet Office includes five special ministers in charge of administrative reform, financial policies and other matters. It also has four groups of advisers, including the Economic and Fiscal Advisory Council. The prime minister is assisted by the staff of the chief Cabinet secretary, including three newly appointed assistant deputy secretaries.

Mori said that to establish political leadership in national affairs, the Cabinet should conduct substantive policy debate and exert strong influence over ministries and agencies. He added he would exert strong Cabinet leadership.

The focus of political leadership is the Cabinet’s 10-member Economic and Fiscal Advisory Council, chaired by the prime minister and made up of Cabinet ministers and three private-sector officials. The council is charged with making recommendations for the national budget and macroeconomic policies. It is designed to have the prime minister and his aides take leadership in budget making from the Finance Ministry.

Meanwhile, the three-party ruling coalition, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, is apparently moving to establish a policy-coordination group, similar to the past Council on Fiscal Policy. This would create a redundancy in policymaking and go against reform moves.

Under reorganization, there are 22 vice ministers and 26 political secretaries, who are all lawmakers. The government is led by 68 politicians, including the prime minister. Vice ministers assist ministers in supervising bureaucrats.

Lawmakers will determine whether the new government structure leads to political leadership replacing traditional bureaucratic leadership. Unless they are well-versed in policy matters, new appointees will be unable to direct bureaucrats or to even answer questions in the Diet. If they maintain their cozy ties with bureaucrats and business executives, the lawmakers will only expand the notorious triangular relationship in the name of political leadership.

The chief Cabinet secretary’s office is staffed by bureaucrats turned assistant deputy secretaries. This reflects strong bureaucratic resistance to reform.

One major problem of the reorganization is the creation of giant ministries. For example, the Construction and Transport Ministry, which took over four ministries and agencies, consists of 13 bureaus and is a prime example of fragmented bureaucratic control. The ministry alone accounts for 80 percent of the nation’s public-works projects, which cover highways, ports and airports. Each bureau of the new ministry has vested interests in public-works projects. It remains to be seen if this structure will be broken.

The General Affairs Ministry, with a mammoth work force of 300,000, took over the Management and Coordination Agency, which was in charge of administrative reform; the Home Affairs Ministry, which oversaw local finances; and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, which handled postal savings, postal insurance, mail and telecommunications. These diverse operations are unrelated.

The postal service, with a staff of 280,000, will be converted into a public corporation in 2003. Unless full debate is conducted on its privatization, administrative reform will be meaningless.

The outline of administrative reform, endorsed by the Cabinet last month, called for radical reform to be undertaken from 2001 to 2005. It also proposed a thorough review of 77 government-backed corporations, in which retired government officials obtain high positions with handsome pay. Plans will be made to abolish, privatize, and convert them into public corporations. Legal steps will be taken by 2005.

Under the outline, national civil servants will be reduced by 25 percent in 10 years. An overhaul of national and civil servant systems will also be undertaken.

In addition, the outline called for reduction of the present 3,200 cities, towns and villages to about 1,000 through mergers. New sources of tax revenue will be sought and local autonomy will be promoted. A three-year program, beginning in fiscal 2001, will be worked out to remove various restrictions.

The government’s reorganization is only the first step in reforming Japan’s political and administrative systems. I wonder if Japan will succeed in realizing the so-called third reform.

Japan urgently needs to overhaul its social-welfare policies — and fiscal-structure reform — as it faces the problems of low birth rates and a graying society. Despite a large budget deficit, the government is investing 75 billion yen under the 2001 budget to extend the shinkansen railways, double comparable spending in fiscal 2000. Mori has been pushing the extension of the railway to his home district. This shows a lack of a sense of responsibility and a lack of leadership on the part of the Mori administration, which has ignored more important national policies.

The government reorganization may have strengthened the powers of the prime minister and the Cabinet, but if the present system in which lawmakers with ties to special-interest groups dominate the political world, Mori’s stated goal of implementing policies in the public’s interest through government reorganization will never be achieved.

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