Commentary / Japan

Lies and the lying bureaucrats who tell them

by Takamitsu Sawa

Hikone,

Some time ago, a joke was circulating within the bureaucratic circle in Tokyo that went, “One cannot expect to become a full-fledged career bureaucrat unless one can convince others that a crow is white.” What this means is that the proof of being an outstanding bureaucrat is to be able to have a rhetorical power of making other people believe that what cannot possibly happen does indeed happen.

In Japan, bureaucrats are said to place top priority on promoting and enhancing the interests of the ministries and agencies they work for. That is why they have seen it as their principal mission to expand the budget and power of their own organizations in order to pursue policies favorable to industrial sectors under their supervision.

There has long been a tendency in Japan to think that law school graduates are “omnipotent,” leading to a belief that they are fitter for the job of handling clerical and administrative work in businesses and bureaucracy than economics school graduates. This is not necessarily because knowledge of law is useful for routine daily work but rather that law school graduates are skilled at concocting theories to “justify” anything.

Japanese career bureaucrats are classified into two categories: clerical staff and technical staff. Technical staffers, most of whom majored in engineering, are not capable of justifying the concocted theory that a crow is white no matter how good they are in their own specialties.

Even among clerical staffers who majored in economics, only a few know the trick of justifying the theory that a crow is white. For this reason, law majors have occupied a majority of high posts at central government ministries and agencies such as administrative vice ministers, director generals and bureau chiefs. Like attorneys, studying law helps one acquire skills to justify whatever they want.

The following is an example of Japanese bureaucrats placing top priority on promoting and enhancing the interests of their own ministries and agencies. On climate change, the view of the Environment Ministry and that of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) have long been diametrically opposed.

The Environment Ministry takes the stance that in the market economy, imposing an environment tax or a carbon tax would be the best means of mitigating climate change. Thus, the top priority of that ministry is securing power and budget to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as a means of protecting the environment.

METI, on the other hand, insists that a carbon tax should not be introduced since it would weaken the international competitiveness of private enterprises. METI’s most important mission is to speak on behalf of industry. As a matter of course, the electric power, steel, oil and chemical industries have launched a campaign in unison against the introduction of an environment tax. That in turn has forced METI to continue claiming that such a tax is harmful and useless.

In an attempt to justify its own assertions, the Environment Ministry argues that an environment tax would help promote the development of energy-saving products, strengthen Japan’s international competitiveness and contribute to economic growth. Similarly, METI argues that such a tax would have an adverse impact on corporate profitability and slow down economic growth, and would have little effect on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

While the introduction of an environment tax can have many effects on the economy, both ministries call attention to points that serve their own best interests and turn a blind eye to effects that are inconvenient to their stances.

Arguments like “a crow is white,” which justify that what seemingly can’t happen does indeed happen, are after all fallacious arguments. It is only in Japan that such arguments are tolerated as reasonable. At any international forum, a fallacy is a fallacy. Such an argument’s illogicality would be immediately recognized and it would be rejected with the presentation of a fact that disproves it.

Now that the Prime Minister’s Office has the upper hand in Japan’s politics, it has become a top priority of the Japanese bureaucracy to guess the intentions of the office and to protect the prime minister and his Cabinet by taking actions in advance that respond to the imagined intentions. In connection with the suspected cronyism scandals involving the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen school operators, a Finance Ministry official and an executive secretary to the prime minister, who is originally from METI, kept saying that a crow is white. At a Diet committee questioning, both of them answered flawlessly, proving that they are highly qualified bureaucrats.

After Tadao Yanase, former executive secretary to the prime minister and currently METI’s vice minister in charge of international affairs, testified before a Diet committee on May 10, the mainstream news media could not go any further than saying that the suspicion that the root of the Kake Gakuen scandal was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s favorable treatment of the school operator has become even more serious. This was because Yanase’s responses were perfect and he succeeded in accomplishing his mission of denying the prime minister’s involvement.

Anybody can tell the truth. No help from a talented career bureaucrat is needed to do so. The true talent of a career bureaucrat lies in his or her ability to formulate a seemingly coherent scenario based only on facts favorable to those he or she is trying to protect while hiding facts that could be harmful. A talented bureaucrat employs such statements like “To the best of my memory, it did not happen” and “”Those papers have already been abandoned.”

A pseudo-theory to justify the claim that “a crow is white” may be a useful means of drafting a legislative bill to promote a particular ministry’s interests. But that does not seem to work as a means of protecting the prime minister. For documents that repudiate a supposedly perfect story formulated by bureaucrats are unearthed one after another.

When it becomes imminent that a public document asserting “a crow is black” will be brought to light, like in the case of the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, bureaucrats have no choice but to resort to the forbidden practice of tampering with government papers. The current political situation characterized by the domination of the Prime Minister’s Office has ruined the pride of career bureaucrats. This is tragic news for young bureaucrats who have a strong sense of mission to serve the nation and its citizens.

Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.