LONDON — Why can’t Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi carry out his promised reforms of the Japanese economy? Some may argue that he never really intended to reform the system and that his promises were all sham designed as a political boost. I don’t agree, although I do question whether he and his close supporters have really thought through how to achieve reforms while ensuring that the Japanese economy recovers from the deflation that has followed the bursting of the bubble.
His real problem lies in the Japanese political and bureaucratic system, which effectively limits the prime minister’s ability to execute his will.
In any democratic system there must be limits on the exercise of arbitrary power. Most important is Parliament’s power to question and hold the executive to account. Another restraint is public opinion and the media. In these respects, Koizumi is in a position similar to that of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Blair is often accused of trying to establish a presidential system by strengthening his oversight of other departments through expansion of the Cabinet Office and his personal staff. Some think he is aiming to emulate the U.S. president, who is also commander in chief. But even the U.S. president must take into account the views of Congress and U.S. public opinion.
Blair has some advantages, including an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. Although some followers at times seem rebellious, such as in the debate over a possible war against Iraq, in practice they are likely to follow Blair’s lead even if only reluctantly.
The British media, despite or perhaps because of the attempts by government spokesmen to lean on them and drip-feed news to them, have been a nuisance to the government, thus ensuring that Blair’s policies are scrutinized even if in a deliberately sensational way.
The unelected House of Lords has also managed to show that it can be of use by checking and restraining the government from taking steps that have not been adequately thought out and that could reduce traditional liberties.
Blair often complains about the reluctance of the public service to change, and expresses his frustration at the way in which government initiatives are, in his view, undermined by inertia and obstruction by officials. To cope with this problem he has set up various performance targets and monitoring units. It is doubtful, though, how effective these have been. They often have seemed to add layers of bureaucracy and to undermine morale in the public service by imposing time-wasting requirements to fill out forms.
At the higher level in Whitehall, the government has had loyal backing, except where civil servants have felt that their nonpolitical status was being misused for political purposes. Despite devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and talk about devolving more responsibility to local bodies, the present British government has continued the trend of previous governments in centralizing policy decision-making. As a result, Britain is one of the most centralized states in the world.
Koizumi inherited from former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto a reformed central apparatus with fewer but larger ministries and a considerable increase in the number of junior ministers. One aim of the new system was to reduce the number of civil servants in Tokyo. Another more important one was to cut the power of the bureaucracy to formulate policy and make officials pay more attention to the wishes of their ministers.
In practice it would seem that the new system has not made much of a difference. It can only work if the new teams of ministers work together with their civil servants and demonstrate their ability not only to master their briefs but also to ask difficult and pertinent questions and demand proper answers.
Koizumi also has strengthened the prime minister’s office, but the Liberal Democratic Party, which remains as faction-ridden as ever, still retains too much power. The three main party posts to which the prime minister makes appointments continue to be regarded as more important than senior jobs in the Cabinet. Those who hold these posts and the chief Cabinet secretary are key figures in making decisions and in manipulating LDP factions to support the government.
The factions are the main constraint on Koizumi’s ability to put his reforms into effect, and the factions — or at least some of their more important members — are beholden to various lobbies working on behalf of agriculture, construction, roads, etc., which see reform as undermining their particular interests. Koizumi has tried, like others before him, to abolish the factions and weaken the influence of the lobbies, but he has been no more successful than his predecessors. Too much money is at stake, and there are too few Japanese politicians with the vision to see beyond their particular constituency to work for the national interest.
Koizumi is also constrained by the Diet. He must rely on support from his coalition parties which, especially Komeito, have their own agenda and can always threaten to leave the coalition if they don’t get their way. However, the credibility of such a threat must be considered doubtful as the coalition parties would not necessarily gain from forcing an election. Neither Koizumi nor Blair need worry much about opposition parties, which in Japan and Britain are divided and enfeebled. This is a deplorable situation, as an effective opposition is essential for the healthy working of a parliamentary democracy.
Public opinion and the media matter in Japan as in any parliamentary democracy, but a politician who worries too much about his popularity soon must learn that public opinion is volatile. If he spends too much time reading the polls and newspaper comments, he won’t have the time or courage to tackle the real issues.
Koizumi’s popularity has helped him deal with critics in the LDP, if only because they are forced to see him as an electoral asset at a time when the party’s popularity is low. Japanese voters have for too long been forced to vote for the LDP — not because they like or respect the party, but faute de mieux.
Koizumi will not find the Bank of Japan an obstacle to reform; indeed, it is a major instigator of radical reform. Nor are the leaders of Nihon Keidanren opposed to reform, although there will be screams if major companies were to be forced into bankruptcy.
There now seems to be an acceptance in Japan that radical steps must be taken soon. It is important that Koizumi grasp this opportunity, face down the opposition within the bureaucracy and, above all, deal firmly with the LDP factions and the selfish and shortsighted lobby groups.
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