Japan from the inside out

Prime Minister Aso doesn’t want to get it

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 14, 2009

“I don’t understand what he wants to do.”
– Prime Minister Aso Taro, on Watanabe Yoshimi’s announcement that he would leave the Liberal Democratic Party

“The fact that he doesn’t understand what I’m saying shows that Prime Minister Aso lacks receptivity toward the people.”
– Watanabe Yoshimi, commenting on the prime minister’s comment

MR. WATANABE might have it backwards. Prime Minister Aso understands very well what the former wants to do, it’s just that he doesn’t want any part of it. What demonstrates his lack of receptivity toward the people is either the fact that he doesn’t get why Mr. Watanabe thought a revolt was necessary, or the fact that he gets it but doesn’t care. It also demonstrates why the Liberal Democratic Party as presently constituted is a dead man walking.


This is illustrated by two recent examples of the prime minister’s unwillingness to reform the practice of amakudari, which is one—but only one—of the ways Japan’s bureaucracy in Kasumigaseki maintains its stranglehold on government. To briefly describe amakudari, senior bureaucrats “descend from heaven” at retirement age into executive positions at private- or public-sector corporations. Their subsequent collusion with the ministries where they spent their first career can lead to a myriad of abuses in the governmental process so obvious it’s not necessary to catalog them all.

The political equivalent of trench warfare to end this practice has been waged for years, and the bureaucrats have become exceptionally clever at stalemating or heading off the efforts to flush them out of their trenches. During his tenure in the previous Fukuda Cabinet, Mr. Watanabe led a highly publicized effort to pass civil service reform, so Prime Minister Aso knows exactly what he’s up to.

The prime minister is also at the forefront of moves to “debone” any move limiting amakudari, as the saying goes in Japan. The first example is a decision taken under his authority to issue an order enabling the approval of amakudari recommendations when the bureaucracy goes job hunting for their old boys starting a second career. The Prime Minister’s office issued this order without having it vetted in advance by the party, which raised some hackles among LDP reformers. Ishihara Nobuteru, the chair of the Civil Service Reform Committee and the Minister of State for Administrative and Regulatory Reform in Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s first Cabinet, was particularly incensed. He called a meeting of the committee earlier this month to plan a protest. Said Mr. Ishihara: “I have no idea whatsoever of the intent behind this order.”

But he too understands very well what Mr. Aso intends—to bypass the people who would complain, such as Mr. Ishihara himself and Mr. Watanabe, and maintain the status quo in Kasumigaseki. One drawback, however, is that it could prevent the maintenance of the status quo between the party and the electorate. Commented one LDP member: “It might be necessary for administrative purposes, but it will stop the hearts of the LDP diet members who have to run in the lower house election.”

Example #2

There’s an even better example of the devious ways in which politicians try to claim credit for reform as they are deboning those reforms to make sure nothing ever changes. Mr. Aso last week said he would ban the custom of watari (migratory movement), in which a Cabinet ministry can arrange more than one new job for their colleagues descending from heaven.

The government has established a “personnel exchange promotion center” that is supposed to consolidate the bureaucracy’s job placement efforts and restrict job placements to one per employee. Jumping from job to job has turned out to be quite a lucrative proposition for ex-civil servants.

But the bag had three holes allowing the bones to slide out: The ministries can still find multiple jobs for the migrators for the time being, Mr. Aso is the only member named to the committee monitoring compliance because the opposition parties refused to cooperate with appointments, and—here’s the best part—there is still a government ordinance allowing multiple job offerings if a company finds the ex-bureaucrat “irreplaceable”.

That last one is the very definition of a loophole, and of course Mr. Aso knows it. When challenged by the opposition, he responded, “I don’t intend to delete it now…but I will be sure to deal with it properly.”

Why yes, we’re sure you will.

It’s the aggregation of decades of boneless loopholes such as this one that caused Mr. Watanabe to finally quit, which of course the prime minister finds perfectly clear.

But here’s what others might not understand: Why are ministries allowed to arrange jobs for their former members at all? Ministry operations are funded by the taxpayers. There’s no reason for the public to foot the bill for a “personnel exchange promotion center”, which is a de facto employment agency for bureaucrats. With their skills and experience, they should be able to whip up a resume and look for work on their own time. That’s assuming they understand the distinction between their own time and the public’s to begin with.

Afterwords: It’s ironic that despite Mr. Aso’s efforts to protect the bureaucracy, the most powerful ministry of all, the Ministry of Finance, is giving him the cold shoulder.

It started when Mr. Aso appointed long-time friend Okamoto Masakatsu to the position of chief clerical secretary (i.e., aide) to the prime minister. Mr. Okamoto was formerly in the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, despite the tradition of reserving that position for people from the Finance Ministry.

To show their displeasure at the slight, the Finance Ministry refused to help Mr. Aso devise plans for a taxpayer stimulus payment and arrange an increase in the tobacco tax that some in his party sought. Finance Minister Nakagawa Shoichi begged for an increase of “even one yen per cigarette”, but the people who are supposed to be his subordinates refused to cooperate, snuffing out any chance it would be levied.

This small illustration of the extent of Kasumgaseki’s power and the petty ways it is exercised also shows why the opposition parties’ focus on the practice of amakudari is ultimately an exercise in smoke blowing. While severely limiting or outlawing amakudari is a necessary step, it does not begin to start the real work, which is analogous to digging up individual clumps of crabgrass by hand on a field the size of a soccer pitch.

Here’s another irony: Mr. Okamoto has written extensively on the subject of devolution for specialist publications. That subject consists of an entirely different soccer-sized pitch of problems that need to be addressed to achieve reform, and it will also tend to limit the influence of the national bureaucracy.

Why would Prime Minister Aso go out of his way to protect the bureaucrats with one hand, yet cause problems for himself by going out of his way to make an appointment ultimately inimical to bureaucratic interests on the other hand? Mr. Aso is certainly not a political naif. It’s a mystery.

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