As the approval rate for the government of Prime Minister Taro Aso plummets, bureaucrats have begun to distance themselves from him in favor of establishing closer ties with the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which they apparently think has at least a fair chance of displacing Aso’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the next general election.

This tendency is particularly conspicuous within the Finance Ministry. In 1993, then high-ranking officials of that ministry cooperated fully with Ichiro Ozawa, current head of the DPJ, as he helped launch the first non-LDP government in nearly four decades. There are signs that incumbent Finance Ministry officials have helped the DPJ prepare its “manifesto” for the general election to be held no later than September.

On Dec. 8, the front pages of the three major vernacular newspapers — Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun — carried the outcome of their respective public opinion polls, showing that the approval rating for the Aso government had plunged to between 21 percent and 22 percent. This was tantamount to disqualifying Aso from leading the LDP in the election campaign. This led bureaucrats of the central government ministries and agencies in general, and of the Finance Ministry in particular, to reconsider whether to fully support the administration.

For example, Prime Minister Aso was bent on submitting a second supplementary budget for fiscal 2008 to the Diet before the turn of the year, incorporating a measure to provide every citizen with a ¥12,000 handout to shore up the economy. But ministry officials refused to comply, saying more time was needed to estimate revenues for such a measure.

In another instance, the Finance Ministry simply ignored Aso’s call for raising the tobacco tax to cover the growing social security costs.

Aso was dealt a big blow when a remark he made at a meeting of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy was released. “Why do I have to foot the medical bills of those who drink, eat and otherwise simply goof off?” Aso had asked. The minutes were distributed to all high-ranking bureaucrats concerned and none called attention to Aso’s gaffe. His words were later made public without being checked by his aides.

“The prime minister no longer has any support from the bureaucracy,” lamented a source close to Aso.

The tendency among high-ranking bureaucrats to distance themselves from the administration has gained momentum just as chances of the DPJ defeating the LDP in the Lower House election and taking the reigns of government have been growing.

One high-ranking health ministry official has expressed worry that if there is a regime change, the new government may retaliate against top personnel such as vice ministers and bureau directors who seemed cooperative with today’s ruling coalition of the LDP and Komeito by demanding their resignation.

Many DPJ lawmakers are surprised that they are treated much more cordially and courteously by bureaucrats today than in the past.

It has been customary for the ministries to send officials of medium standing to explain policy matters to the DPJ. Today, however, the DPJ is visited by officials of the highest echelon just as the governing coalition parties are. Especially active of late in seeking to establish close ties with the No. 1 opposition party are the finance ministry, trade and economy ministry and health ministry, sources say.

A major platform plank of the DPJ calls for expenditure of ¥22 trillion for providing parents with child-care allowances and making all expressways toll-free. When the party was criticized for not being clear as to where to get the necessary funds, the Finance Ministry provided the DPJ with confidential data useful in determining the financial resources.

The intimate relationship between DPJ leader Ozawa and the Finance Ministry dates back to 1993, when he helped install the non-LDP administration headed by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. Ozawa worked so closely with then Vice Finance Minister Jiro Saito that the Hosokawa regime was dubbed a coalition of Ozawa and the Finance Ministry.

When Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda sought to name former Vice Finance Minister Toshiro Muto to succeed Toshihiko Fukui as governor of the Bank of Japan in March of last year, Ozawa was inclined at first to approve the nomination, apparently because he felt he owed much to the ministry. But he was unable to win support from his lieutenants within the DPJ, and had to change his mind.

Leading the move within the Finance Ministry to build an amicable relationship with the DPJ is Shunsuke Kagawa, deputy director of the Budget Bureau, who served as Ozawa’s secretary when Ozawa was deputy chief Cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. Kagawa played a leading role in a political study group led by Ozawa. The discussions became the basis for Ozawa’s 1993 book “Nihon Kaizo Keikaku (Plans for the Reconstruction of Japan).”

A growing number of high-ranking bureaucrats are entering politics on the DPJ ticket, especially since the Lower House election of 2003. Former government bureaucrats account for more than 10 percent of the DPJ candidates in single-seat constituencies lined up for the upcoming general election. Most are new faces.

Many bureaucrats began worrying about the loss of prerogatives after the DPJ announced that, once it took the reins of government, it would station more than 100 lawmakers at ministries and agencies as vice ministers and deputy vice ministers to ensure that elected politicians, rather than bureaucrats, implemented policies. DPJ lawmaker Akira Nagatsuma has gone one step further with a plan to have Cabinet ministers work closely with the prime minister at his official residence, instead of in their respective ministries.

When the LDP lost control of the government in 1993, the bureaucracy in general gave it the cold shoulder, only to suffer retaliation when it returned to power. Bureaucrats today are distancing themselves from the LDP even while the party is in power, and there seems to be very little the LDP can do about it.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the January issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese, political, social and economic scenes.

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