Japan from the inside out

The Watanabe-Eda platform for reform in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 8, 2009

THE MOST COMPELLING STORY in Japanese politics today is the struggle to eliminate the control of politics and policy determination by largely anonymous civil servants in the bureaucracy rather than elected representatives. Many of those who seek to put the bureaucracy at Kasumigaseki in its place also advocate small, decentralized government. If that movement has a firebrand, it is surely the now-independent Diet member Watanabe Yoshimi, who has already been the subject of several posts here. (Click on the tag at the end of this post for more.)

Working with his political partner and fellow lower house MP Eda Kenji—himself a former bureaucrat—Mr. Watanabe is determined to ignite a citizens’ movement for a drastic change in the face of Japanese government.

On 20 April, the two men presented their political philosophy and objective with the publication of a book-length dialogue titled Datsu Kanryo Seiken, or very roughly, Eliminating the Political Power of the Bureaucracy.

At the end of the book, the authors conveniently provide a summarization and condensation of their objectives in a ten-point program that should serve as the basis for all discussion about governmental reform in this country. Perfection is not an achievable goal for any political system, but Japan is unlikely to find a better action plan for reform than this.

Students of government might find the resemblance of aspects of the program to the American conception of federalism to be striking.

The following is my quick and dirty translation of their platform.

Ten Issues for the Citizens’ Movement, Eliminating Bureaucratic Control, and Regional Autonomy

There are steps that should be taken before taxes are increased! Diet members and the bureaucrats should be the first to sacrifice.

1. The complete prohibition of amakudari (The source of wasted tax money)
(Note: Amakudari is the practice of giving senior bureaucrats important jobs in government-affiliated organizations and private companies when they retire.)

  • Immediately and completely prohibit watari recommendations and individual ministry and agency recommendations. (Further note: Watari is the name for the ministries’ arrangement of successive jobs for retired bureaucrats at government-affiliated corporations, with the former civil servants getting retirement money each time.)
  • Eliminate personnel banks on a timed schedule. (Specifically mentioned is a center under the jurisdiction of the Cabinet Office that handles employment recommendations for bureaucrats in one organization rather than allowing individual ministries and agencies to make those recommendations.)
  • Eliminate the practice of encouraging early retirement, and establish a personnel system based on working until retirement age.
  • Revise the seniority-based salary system by overhauling the laws regarding remuneration, and reduce all personnel expenses.
  • Conduct a private sector-type restructuring of government by loosening the restraints on the basic right to work for public employees.
  • Establish oversight organizations operated by third parties. (Establish punitive provisions for violators and strictly enforce those provisions.)

2. Completely uncover the hidden funds in special accounts (30-50 trillion yen)

  • Conduct a complete and thorough accounting of the differential between assets and liabilities in the special accounts, starting with the surplus and reserve funds for the three largest sources of those accounts: government investment and loans, labor insurance, and the special account for foreign reserves.
  • Sell state-owned assets and stock held by the government.

3. Sharply reduce the number of Diet members and bureaucrats, as well as their salaries

  • Reduce the number of lower house members to 300 (by eliminating the 180 proportional representation delegates) and the number of upper house members to 100 (by eliminating the 142 proportional representation delegates).
  • Eliminate the jobs of 100,000 national civil servants (Introduce the state/province system and eliminate the central government’s organizations in regional blocs. There are now 330,000 national civil servants.)
  • Cut the salaries of Diet members by 30% and their bonuses by 50%. Cut the salaries of civil servants by 10%-20%.

4. In principle, abolish or privatize independent administrative agencies, and drastically reform public interest corporations.

  • The independent administrative agencies and public interest corporations are hotbeds for amakudari. These should, in principle, be abolished. Those independent administrative agencies that cannot be abolished should be privatized. The need for public interest corporations should be reevaluated on the premise of a zero-based review.

5. Eradicate collusive bidding at the initiative of public officials, and eliminate and conduct more rigorous oversight of the single tendering of contracts and designated competitive bidding

  • Beef up the law to prevent collusive bidding at the initiative of public officials, thus preventing collusion with the organizations where amakudari is a problem (by expanding the application to former bureaucrats). Strengthen the Fair Trade Commission’s authority in regard to this collusive bidding.
  • In principle, replace single tendering and designated competitive bidding with general competitive bidding. When such practices are unavoidable, require the reason for their need and the public disclosure of information on current amakudari-based employment at the contracting partner.

6. Integrate the management of senior personnel decisions through a Cabinet Personnel Bureau under the prime minister’s office, and hire general personnel simultaneously

  • Put senior personnel decisions under the control of the prime minister’s office to ensure the primacy of political appointments.
  • Foster a bureaucracy whose personnel are aware that they serve the nation rather than individual ministries or agencies. Eliminate vertical administration (of the ministries and agencies).
  • Hire private sector personnel experts and place private sector personnel from outside the government in leadership positions.
  • Require the provisional resignation of all senior personnel in the bureaucracy at the level of department head and above. Rehire some of those personnel in special positions for limited times only. Employ both politicians and private sector personnel as a state strategy staff and political appointees (political appointments).
  • Create a mechanism for identifying the responsibility of bureaucrats for policy failures.

7. Maintain the authority to formulate budgets by a Cabinet Budget Bureau under the prime minister’s office

  • Put budget formulation under political control by removing the work for budget assessments, government investment and loans, and tax planning and proposals from the Ministry of Finance and establishing a Cabinet Budget Bureau under the prime minister’s office. Zero-based budgeting will be the general operating principle.
  • Disband the Social Insurance Agency and combine its functions with the Tax Administration Agency. In the future, create a public taxation and collection agency and integrate the work for collecting local taxes. This would kill two birds with one stone by improving the collection rate for taxes and social insurance premiums, as well as reducing the number of government personnel.

8. Completely prohibit contributions by corporations and other groups to individual politicians (the source of political corruption)

  • Completely eliminate the branch offices of political parties. Allow corporate and group donations only to a party headquarters. (Implement the pledge made to the people when political party subsidies from public funds were created during the Hosokawa Administration.) Crush the connection between politicians and their vested interests on the one hand, and pressure groups on the other.

9. Establish local autonomy and adopt the state/province system to improve the lives of the people and a focus on the regional areas.

  • Transfer “the three ‘gen’” (kengen, or authority; zaigen, or revenue sources; and ningen, or people) to the basic local government units: municipalities.
  • Establish local autonomy and residential self rule for laws, taxation, and other measures.
  • Abolish the system of “subsidies with strings attached” provided by central government ministries and agencies, and national taxes distributed to local governments. Introduce a new mechanism for allocating financial resources among local governments.
  • Move to a state/prefecture system based on local autonomy in 10 years.
  • Limit the authority of the national government.

10. Use all of the foregoing to dismantle Kasumigaseki (the ministries and agencies of the central government)

  • Reorganize the ministries and agencies of the central government (Kasumigaseki) again to leave only the “national minimum” required for diplomacy, the maintenance of safety (including food and energy), public finances, monetary issues, and social insurance. Rid the country of governmental authority concentrated at the national level.

This agenda is ultimately a basis for discussion when forming groups (for political action). It is adaptable, and items can be added, subtracted, or amended in the future through activities in which citizens have the lead role.


By the numbers:

1. Some people go no further than amakudari when discussing the abuses of the Japanese bureaucracy, but as this list demonstrates, the problems go much deeper than that. The personnel bank to which the two men refer was, ironically, established to reduce the impact of amakudari.

3. Reducing the number of national legislators is another step that would kill two birds with one stone. In addition to cutting the cost of government, a new (presumably) winner-take-all system in electoral districts would result in a real two-party system that sharply curtails the influence of the smaller parties. Even the non-reformers in both the LDP and the DPJ have been discussing this step as a way to eliminate their pesky coalition partners.

This measure would reduce the strength of New Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partners in government, from 31 seats to eight in the lower house and from nine to two in the upper house. The Communist Party would lose all of its seats in both houses—nine in the lower house and three in the upper house, and the Social Democrats would lose six of their seven seats in the lower house and both its upper house seats.

That’s fine by me. While I understand the argument that it shuts out minority views from the process, too often in parliamentary systems those minority parties wind up to be the tail wagging the dog. One of the problems of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is that too many puppies are trying to wag the big dog’s tail, both internally and among the smaller parties aligned with it. The party can function efficiently only when kennel meister Ozawa Ichiro dictates party policy.

That’s no way to run a political party.

4. Yes indeed! These hotbeds of amakudari include:

The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, the National Agricultural Research Organization, the National Institute of Animal Health, the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention, the National Traffic Safety and Environment Laboratory, the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency, the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, the National Institute for Japanese Language, the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, the National Hospital Organization Kyushu Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Kyoto Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Hokkaido Cancer Center, the National Hospital Organization Nagoya Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Kure Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Osaka National Hospital, the National Hospital Organization Yokohama Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Fukuyama Medical Center, the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, the National Museum of Western Art, the Fukui National College of Technology, the Japan Foundation Japanese-Language Institute, Urawa, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the National Livestock Breeding Center, the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, the National Agency for the Advancement of Sports and Health, the Commemorative Organization for the Japan World Exposition ’70, the Japan Student Services Organization, the National Research Institute of Fisheries Science, Fisheries Research Agency, the National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries, Fisheries Research Agency, the Japan Water Agency, the National Research Institute of Fire and Disaster, the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation, the Welfare And Medical Service Agency, the National Center for Seeds and Seedlings, the National Statistics Center, the National Institute for Sea Training, the National Institute of Technology and Evaluation, the Center for Food Quality, Labeling and Consumer Services, Livestock Industries Corporation, the Kansai Advanced Research Center, Communications Research Laboratory, the Urban Renaissance Agency, the National Research Institute of Brewing, the Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency, the Japan Organization for Employment of the Elderly and Persons with Disabilities, and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.

Just imagine all the comfortable sinecures these organizations offer those bureaucrats who descend from Kasumigaseki heaven. They all have English websites paid for by Japanese taxpayers—pop any of them into Google and see if you think any of them really need to be spared elimination or privatization.

6. It is not easy for people outside of Japan to appreciate how a system of “political appointees”–a phrase that makes most Americans cringe–would be an improvement, but that again demonstrates the excessive influence and power of the Japanese bureaucracy in politics and government.

7. This is designed to eliminate the control exerted by the Ministry of Finance on the budget. The Finance Ministry is considered to be the Big Swinging Dick of all the ministries.

8. One can sympathize with the efforts to eliminate the influence of big business on politics through campaign contributions, but it’s probably impossible to do so. Similar reforms in the United States have failed miserably. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Candidate Obama refused public financing, and his website accepting credit card contributions intentionally had the address verification function turned off (which has to be done manually). That allowed people to donate under fictitious names to skirt contribution limits and the law preventing donations from foreigners. A lot of money (just how much will never be known) was collected for Mr. Obama in Africa. His campaign raised a record amount of nearly 750 million dollars, and included website contributions from Adolf Hitler, Mickey Mouse and all sorts of goofy fictitious people that the donors and the campaign, in their contempt for the law, didn’t bother to disguise.

After his election, Mr. Obama appointed Eric Holder as Attorney General. When he served as Deputy Attorney General, Mr. Holder facilitated outgoing President Bill Clinton’s scheme to sell presidential pardons for cash.

Senior Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod said that all fraudulent contributions would be returned, and my eyes rolled while typing that sentence just as much as yours did when reading it.

Nobody is going to be prosecuted for the obvious fraud. And corporate contributors in Japan will find a way to skirt the law, too.

9. I’ve wanted to do a piece on the proposed state/province system for a long time, but that really deserves a magazine-length article. This system would create anywhere from nine to 12 states or provinces that would eventually supplant the current 47 prefectures. The result would be a three-tiered structure of central government, state/province government, and municipal government, each with clearly defined functions and the power to levy and collect taxes.

The reorganization of government at the sub-national level is currently the subject of intense debate among the political class in Japan, and some hold that the introduction of such a system would be a powerful weapon to nullify the bureaucratic stranglehold on government.

This one’s fine by me, too. Anything that removes authority from the central government and puts it closer to the people is always fine by me. Power to the people, don’t you know.

10. Hallelujah!

Who would have thought that two decades after the unquestioned successes of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain that the working politicians most passionately devoted to small government, devolution of authority, and budget hawking would be in Japan?

As a Japanese taxpayer and permanent resident of Japan, I’d love to see all 10 of these platform planks implemented immediately–especially before any tax increase, most of which is likely to be wasted. Will they all come to pass? Probably not. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear the howls of protest from the smaller parties, particularly the ones on the left, that it is undemocratic and unfair to allow only those people who actually win elections to hold Diet seats. Yes, it’s beyond parody, but it also doesn’t take much imagination to know that the mass media will give them as much megaphone as they want.

Nevertheless, Mr. Watanabe and Mr. Eda do everyone a service by presenting these ideas in a coherent program, thereby redrawing the boundaries of the debate. The most successful politicians are the ones who drag the center in their direction.

3 Responses to “The Watanabe-Eda platform for reform in Japan”

  1. Bender said

    All this I’ve been hearing since I was a kid. Kind of like the story about the cure for cancer going to be discovered within a couple of years.

  2. ampontan said

    They’ve been talking about an American style federalist system in Japan that long?

  3. Bender said

    If you mean busting central gov’t bureaucrats and de-centralizing, yep. Probably ever since Japan’s miraculous post-war growth peaked out in the 1970s.

    Do-shu-sei is also old. Wikipedia seems to have done a good job in describing the history of the debate:日本の道州制論議

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