For the past several months since the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan, an increasing number of bureaucrats have grown “negligent in their duties” because of what they view as the incompetence of Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

This could conceivably trigger a full-scale collapse of the bureaucracy system, which, for good or bad, has long served as the “backbone” of the administrative branch of Japanese government.

Poor cooperation between the central and local governments has been responsible in large measure for the slow pace of restoring and rebuilding disaster-hit regions, and this is mainly due to negligence on the part of central government bureaucrats.

Bureaucrats had managed to persevere with the bashing they received during the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe between 2006 and 2007. This time, however, they are said to have become so disgusted with the Kan administration that they do not even feel guilty about neglecting their duties.

Their negligence is reflected in the fact that the central government ministries and agencies have transmitted few proposals, action plans, request, etc. to the prime minister’s headquarters.

Conversely, officials from the same ministries and agencies who are stationed at the prime minster’s headquarters have had very few matters to transmit back to their bosses. That’s because Kan tends to speak up proposals haphazardly and in an ill-conceived manner without coordination with Cabinet ministers and other officials.

In the meantime, Kan’s top lieutenants, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, have been preoccupied with the issue of when and how Kan will step down.

One of the principal slogans with which Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan scored a resounding victory in the 2009 general election, ending more than half a century of almost uninterrupted rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, was to shift real decision-making power from the bureaucracy to the elected politicians.

Since the spirit of this slogan has receded in the aftermath of the March 11 disasters, this could have been a chance for bureaucrats to carry out policy measures at their own initiative, they have not done that. Instead, they have chosen to “do nothing” because they have lost confidence in Kan’s ability to lead the nation and because politicians’ watch over them has weakened.

One official of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications complained that while he and his colleagues “have been doing our best to cope with the disasters, we regret that officials of another ministry are not.” The reference was to the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade.

“No,” said an official of the METI. “It’s not that we have neglected our duties, but rather that we have been prevented from doing what we are supposed to do.” He pointed to the long delay in a major reshuffling of high ministry posts that normally takes place in summer.

The delay happened, he said, because “the prime minister and those who surround him have been kept preoccupied with working out postdisaster programs. Without knowing who our new bosses are going to be, we simply cannot get down to performing our duties in earnest.”

Another factor that has changed the sentiment of bureaucrats from one of “perseverance” to “despair” was the submission to the Diet of a legislative bill to empower the government to cut the wages of public servants without seeking advice from the National Personnel Authority. This bill, the constitutionality of which has been doubted by some, has lowered bureaucrats’ morale considerably.

Not all bureaucrats have conveyed a lethargic image. In June, the foreign and defense ministers of Japan and the U.S. — Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates — met in Washington.

Most observers had expected little out of the meeting because three of the four were about to step down — Gates having expressed his intention to resign and the two Japanese ministers set to lose their jobs with the resignation of Kan.

To the delight and surprise of proponents of strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities, especially those within the conservative LDP, a joint statement issued after the meeting included standards by which missile defense technologies jointly developed by Japan and the U.S. could be exported to third countries. The significance of this statement was in the fact that it represented at least a partial but crucial departure from Japan’s long-standing policy of prohibiting weapons exports.

Had it not been for major efforts by the high-ranking bureaucrats who accompanied Matsumoto and Kitazawa, that sort of statement could not have come out of the meeting.

The joint statement was applauded by American participants at a symposium taking place in Tokyo, including Richard L. Armitage, former deputy Secretary of State, and other prominent “Japan hands.” One of the participants is said to have asked a Japanese Foreign Ministry official what will change if Kan steps down and another prime minister is sworn in?

This question has been interpreted by many as indirect criticism of the widespread belief that all problems will be resolved by a change in prime ministers. Moreover, it is thought to be a sign of encouragement for Japanese bureaucrats to regain their pride.

The problem this country faces is multifaceted: a prime minister with no leadership, two major political parties interested only in faulting each other, mass media spreading the misapprehension that Japan’s outlook in every field will brighten once Kan steps down, and those bureaucrats who are loath to do their duties of serving people.

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

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