How to deal with Kasumgaseki?
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, May 21, 2008
KASUMIGASEKI IS A DISTRICT in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward that is the location of many government ministries. The name is used figuratively to refer to the Japanese bureaucracy in the same way that Wall Street is used to refer to financial markets or the financial industry in the United States.
For most people interested in Japanese politics, it is not a term of endearment.
One of the nation’s epic political struggles is the effort to smash what is referred to as the Iron Triangle of vested interests formed by the old guard of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy, and business and financial interests.
For the first part of this decade, it seemed as if a corner had finally been turned in the struggle during the administration of Koizumi Jun’ichiro, the icebreaker of Japanese politics. The trend continued to an extent under his successor, Abe Shinzo. In other words, the greatest successes in the taming of the Kasumigaseki shrew have so far been achieved by the reform wing of the LDP.
But it should come as no surprise that the vested interests would try to regain their footing, and they have found their opportunity during the brief administration of Fukuda Yasuo.
Freelance journalist Yokota Yumiko contributed an article to the June issue of Shokun! that discusses the possibility of setting up think tanks to counteract the Kasumigaseki influence. She quotes one unidentified member of the bureaucracy about its recent resurgence:
“Today, Kasumigaseki is a growth industry.”
Some people have concluded that the best hope to break the Iron Triangle lies in having the opposition Democratic Party of Japan form a government. It’s an understandable position—Prime Minister Koizumi tried, but failed, to shift the gasoline taxes to the general account to pare the road construction pork. Before forming his own administration, Prime Minister Abe was involved in the effort to standardize government pensions, but was only partially successful. Despite their successes in other areas, neither was able to completely overcome the allies of the entrenched interests within their own party.
But Ms. Yokota quotes another member of the bureaucracy on how they view the prospects of a DPJ-led administration. (My translation; the emphasis is in the original.)
“No matter how you look at it, no policy proposals can be implemented without Kasumigaseki. Even if the Democratic Party of Japan were to form a government, it would be unlikely to have an adverse impact on our work. Indeed, it would make our work a lot easier if the DPJ did us the favor of winning the next lower house election and breaking the logjam in the Diet. It would be easier to pass bills, and we would be able to free ourselves from the chains that tie us to the engorged politicians of the LDP.
“If the DPJ were to form a government, they would wind up having to restrain their current irresponsibility. Having them take power once should be enough for the voters to realize they have no ability to handle the reins of government.”
It might also be useful to remember the example of Mr. Abe. The Social Insurance Agency hammered the final nails in the coffin of the Abe administration when he pursued plans to privatize the agency. They blew the lid off the mishandling of millions of pension accounts, a problem that wasn’t even Mr. Abe’s responsibility.
Rather than stand up to the agency, DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro’s stated intention is to merge the body with another government institution. That’s just sweeping the problem under the rug–out of sight, out of mind.
Wishful thinking is an indulgence people with an interest in politics cannot afford. Politicians and bureaucrats themselves are too pragmatic, too engrossed in looking out for the main chance, and have too much invested in their own survival to waste any of their time and energy on it.
The rest of us would do well to follow their example.
Postscript: Some readers will also remember how the bureaucrats at the Foreign Ministry dealt with former Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko. She was a formidable figure in her own right, and her bloodlines gave her a thorough understanding of the problem. The woman who was compared to a bulldozer wound up reduced to tears and out of the executive branch in a matter of months. Since then, she’s been remarkably docile.
If they weren’t afraid of taking her on, who in the DPJ would make them flinch?