Commentary / Japan | SENTAKU MAGAZINE

Top grads shun Kasumigaseki

On Wednesday, about 3,000 students graduating from the University of Tokyo (aka Todai) will receive their diplomas at a commencement ceremony at Yasuda Auditorium on the Hongo campus.

But major changes are occurring at Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki, where the Japanese government ministries and agencies are concentrated — so far the most popular destination for many graduates from this prestigious university.

A career civil servant at one of the economic ministries, who graduated from Todai in the 1980s, notes deterioration of the quality of university graduates entering national civil service. He wonders what types of jobs top Todai graduates are now seeking.

While admitting there is criticism against the government ministries and agencies dominated by Todai graduates, this bureaucrat says he would worry about Japan’s future unless top Todai graduates continue to play crucial roles in underpinning Japan as a country.

An associate professor in the university’s Department of Law says that in the old days, graduates with high academic records from the department used to pass the bar examination and that even some of them chose to join the central government ministries and agencies by taking the national civil service examinations that enable successful applicants to advance to senior posts.

These days, he adds, graduates with high academic records go to graduate law schools and that particularly talented graduates land jobs in the private sector, especially companies run by foreign capital. He points out that the number of those seeking careers as civil servants has decreased.

Statistics substantiate his observation. Of about 400 students graduating from the Todai Law Department every year, about 150 used to become civil servants through the 1990s. The number has since fallen and only 71 from the department who graduated in March 2014 pursued careers in the public sector, with 66 of them hired by the central government ministries and agencies.

In 2011, only 46 graduates from the same department were hired by the central government while 138 others, or about one-third of department graduates, chose to advance to graduate law schools of Todai and other universities.

According to the same associate professor, the most brilliant students may skip graduate law schools by taking a special examination that qualifies successful applicants to take the bar examination. For Todai students, following this route is not a very difficult task. That’s why good students who have both the time and money abandon the idea of becoming civil servants on the bureaucratic path and instead go on to study at graduate law schools.

Although the excessive number of attorneys has become a social issue, those capable of entering and graduating from Todai are all but assured of a future career to some extent. Conversely this means that jobs in central government ministries and agencies are no longer as attractive as other career paths.

Current trends clearly indicate that only medium to low-ranking students from the Todai Law Department want to become civil servants. Even in recent years, graduates from the law and other departments of Todai account for a relatively large portion of those passing the national civil service examinations for fast-track career jobs.

In fiscal 2011, for example, about 200 graduates of Todai and its graduate schools passed the exams for administrative and engineering positions — about 40 percent of the total.

In fiscal 2012, the number of Todai Law Department graduates hired for administrative positions was 58 out of the total number of 258. When those who majored in economics at Todai are included, Todai graduates accounted for 30 percent of those who landed career administrative jobs.

But the aforementioned career civil servant says he is flabbergasted by these numbers when they are compared with those of several decades ago — when 80 percent of new graduates hired by the Finance Ministry were from Todai.

Of the 36 new graduates who joined the same ministry to become career administrative civil servants in 2012, those from the Todai Law Department numbered only 11. This figure showed a slight improvement from 2009, when only four from that law department were hired, the same as those who majored in economics at Todai.

Although their excessively heavy reliance on Todai graduates has long been criticized, the career civil servant says that the ministries and agencies would do all that is possible to hire excellent students from Todai.

This tendency is particularly strong at the Finance Ministry, which is reputed to be the nucleus of Kasumigaseki’s whole bureaucratic system. The reason the ministry has long hired large numbers of Todai graduates is that good recruits happened to come from Todai, according to the career civil servant.

The associate professor at the Todai Law Department categorically denies the view that the standards of Todai students as a whole have deteriorated. He says that such a phenomenon cannot happen because only top-ranking high school students from all over the country dare to apply for studying at Todai although there has been a decline in the population of 18-year-olds.

Masahiko Kadotani is one example of a top-ranking Todai graduate who eventually climbed to one of the highest positions for national civil servants. Graduating from the Todai Law Department in 1958, he passed both the bar examination and the fast-track career national civil service exams and got a job at the Finance Ministry.

Although he did not reach the top bureaucratic post of administrative vice minister, he nonetheless climbed the ladder to become the director general of the National Tax Administration Agency.

This pattern of promotion for top Todai graduates remained quite common until a few decades ago; it has been changing gradually since the 1990s. There is even a sign of deterioration in Todai’s standards, though denied by the associate professor above.

For the 2015 academic year, the number of students wanting to major in law during their junior and senior years at Todai failed to fill the quota for the Law Department. Many sophomores who normally would have chosen to study law selected economics and other disciplines, instead.

When a similar phenomenon surfaced in 2012, it was called the strangest thing in the history of the university. In the ensuing year, a primary round of entrance examination for the course that prepares freshman and sophomore students for law studies in their junior and senior years was not held for the first time in 34 years and instead, every applicant was allowed to take the second round, indicating that a growing number of students were distancing themselves from the Law Department.

A Todai graduate who is a middle-ranking civil servant says the reason that graduates of his school are not as enthusiastic about getting jobs with the government as they used to be is not necessarily that foreign capital-affiliated corporations are offering higher salaries but that public criticism of bureaucrats in general has increased.

Yet, he says, the government ministries and agencies have played crucial roles in steering the nation, with fast-track career bureaucrats at the controls. Who will replace them if their quality deteriorates or they perish, he asks.

It would be a waste of time and effort to try to persuade Todai students to realize anew that Todai is a school to nurture future civil servants. Within a decade or two, all important government posts will probably be occupied by those bureaucrats who are harmless to man or beast, and much less likely to get involved in scandals.

In a way, this may be an ideal situation, but much doubt would be cast on their capabilities.

Changes in the mindset of top-ranking Todai graduates are about to change the future path of Japan.

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