AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

The same old song

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 25, 2011

TO CONTINUE with the theme of yesterday’s post, here’s another illustration of how the Japanese mass media is every bit as lamestream as their Anglosphere cousins. The following is an excerpt from a Yomiuri Shimbun editorial on 22 January.

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Prime Minister Kan has undertaken a radical change of course from his party’s position of excluding the bureaucracy under the name of “political leadership”. His approach to policy reconciliation among the various ministries and agencies is to allow the participation (in discussions) of undersecretaries and bureau chiefs from the bureaucracy in addition to Cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, and parliamentary secretaries. With his reexamination of the party’s platform for the 2009 lower house election, this represents an unavoidable course correction for the call of “political leadership” (N.B.: as opposed to bureaucratic leadership) that was the watchword for the change in government.

Smiling from start to finish, Prime Minister Kan spoke to the ministry undersecretaries in the Kantei conference room on the morning of the 21st. He told them: “I’m working with all of you to build a good country, so I want you to express your opinions without reserve to the ministers, deputy ministers, and me.”

When it was in the opposition, the Democratic Party harshly criticized the practice of bureaucratic leadership for the formulation and reconciliation of policy proposals. Their 2009 party platform clearly specified that the proposal, reconciliation and determination of policy was to be conducted through political leadership exercised by the Cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, and parliamentary secretaries. The Hatoyama administration pursued a policy of excluding the bureaucracy through such measures as the abolition of the council for undersecretaries and the establishment of a council for the Cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, and parliamentary secretaries (or seimu sanyaku in the Japanese shorthand).

The abolition of the council for undersecretaries, which had the role of reconciling the content of important policies for which more than one ministry was responsible, caused turmoil in the administration of government, however. Some officials in the Cabinet objected to such Hatoyama administration proposals as the revision of the National Civil Service Law and the bill to reform Japan Post just before their adoption, resulting in a delay of their adoption. The bureaucracy was not informed of some of the decisions taken by the Seimu Sanyaku Council, and the adverse effects of this repeatedly affected all the ministries.

In his instructions on the 21st, Prime Minister Kan said, “I want to create a positive, cooperative relationship between undersecretaries and politicians. There are several problems in our conduct of politics today, including self-reflection, taking things to extremes, and insufficiency. Politicians also understand that affairs will not proceed (toward resolution) if they think they alone can handle everything.” He thus recognized the flaws of conventional “political leadership”.

(end excerpt)

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Mr. Kan’s speech to the undersecretaries might sound familiar to those who follow Japanese politics. It is in effect nearly identical to the speech given by Aso Taro of the LDP to the same meeting of undersecretaries when he became prime minister in 2008, little more than two years ago. Said Mr. Aso: “In my Cabinet, the bureaucracy will not be the enemy. It is important to employ the bureaucracy skillfully.”

As Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi remarked, “That signaled his intention to leave all the decision-making to the bureaucracy.” In the same way, Mr. Kan’s ingratiating address signals his intention to throw in the spoon (which the Japanese throw instead of the towel) on civil service reform.

Real change in the way the government operates was the reason the DPJ unseated the LDP in the 2009 lower house election. (It was the reason Koizumi Jun’ichiro was, and still is, so popular.) Instead of a real change, however, the DPJ morphed into a pre-Hashimoto Ryutaro version of the LDP, albeit with a leftist orientation. As another commentator noted, the Kan pep talk is indicative of the degree of DPJ guts.

Who needs a teleprompter when they gave me this cribsheet? (Sankei Shimbun photo)

Mr. Kan’s remarks also represent a denial of his lifelong political philosophy. He has long advocated encouraging greater citizen input into policy decisions, which he specifically contrasted to policy formulated by the bureaucracy and rubber-stamped by the politicians. But most observers knew that Mr. Kan had thrown in the spoon before this. It was apparent from watching his first speech to the Diet as prime minister last summer. He reverted to the old LDP practice of reading aloud from what the bureaucracy calls tanzaku, or strips of paper. Each ministry produces a piece of paper on which is written a few sentences for the prime minister to say, and they’re stapled together to create the text of the speech. Recent prime ministers had stopped using the tanzaku, but Mr. Kan chose parrothood.

This issue might be difficult to understand outside of Japan, but it is without question the most critical one in the country’s governing process today. Here it is again: the bureaucracy in this country considers itself to be the permanent ruling class. As I’ve mentioned before, one bureaucrat-turned-reformer politician said that on his first day at the Agriculture Ministry, he was told his job was “to make the monkeys dance”.

The bureaucrats do not see their role as offering policy options at the request of the politicians. They actively formulate their own policy proposals and hawk them to MPs every day in the Diet office building like a squad of colporteurs. Among those who most strongly advocate bureaucratic reform are the journalists who have served on governmental blue ribbon panels and witnessed their behavior at first hand.

If you think I’m exaggerating, perhaps you should read this article by Martin Fackler in the New York Times. It was published on 24 March 2010, when Hatoyama Yukio was still prime minister. Long-time friends might wonder why I offer a link to the Times—I usually limit links to reliable sources—but there are two reasons:

1. It is an accurate description of the problem.
2. It is the most surreal example of journalistic incompetence I’ve ever read.

Here’s Mr. Fackler’s explanation:

Since ending the Liberal Democrats’ nearly unbroken 54-year grip on power in last summer’s election, Mr. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party has proclaimed its top mission to be changing the way the country is governed by a process that is commonly called “escaping the bureaucracy.” The aim is to make Japan’s political system more responsive by ending more than a century of de facto rule by elite career bureaucrats at Tokyo’s central ministries, and empowering democratically elected politicians instead…(T)he ministries…long ran Japan with backroom decision-making.

He quotes then-Internal Affairs Minister Haraguchi Kazuhiro:

“The bureaucrats created a very centralized system that has become out of date, and unable to react to the world’s changes…We need a system that serves the people, not the bureaucracy and entrenched interest groups.”

One of Kasumigaseki’s favorite weapons is leaking information to the media. Mr. Fackler further quotes Mr. Haraguchi’s explanation of how the bureaucrats whispered potentially damaging stories about the DPJ to the press after he reassigned some civil servants against ministry wishes. That’s the same MO they used for scuttling the Abe administration’s attempt to privatize the Social Insurance Agency in 2007, responsible for national pensions. The final nail in Mr. Abe’s coffin was hammered in when the agency let it be known that the records for the pensions of millions of people were lost during the conversion from a handwritten system to a computerized system a decade before Mr. Abe took office. His government bore the brunt of citizen anger.

The reason this ranks as journalistic incompetence, however, is that Mr. Fackler’s paean to the DPJ was nonsense on the day he wrote it. The Japanese closely watching DPJ efforts to reform the bureaucracy knew that Mr. Hatoyama had thrown in the spoon as early as December 2009, three months before that article was published and only three months after he took office. That’s when stories in the weekly and monthly print media began to appear about the DPJ betrayal of their promises for government led by the politicians. That month, even then-DPJ Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro criticized the government of his own party for allowing the Finance Ministry too much input in formulating the budget. The policy review touted in the article was orchestrated and scripted by the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau–information that was available to the Japanese public shortly after the first one was televised.

It wasn’t that many people were surprised. Mr. Hatoyama’s father, himself the son of a former prime minister, started his career in the Finance Ministry before turning to politics. One element of the Democrats’ plan to place policy formulation in political hands was the creation of a National Strategy Bureau to be led by elected officials. Then-Finance Minister Fujii Hirohisa—the former director of the ministry’s Budget Bureau—convinced the government to downgrade it to an “office”. None other than Kan Naoto was put in charge, and he soon complained that he didn’t have enough work to do there. (It was later revealed he spent a lot of time playing go on his computer when he did show up at the office.) Mr. Fujii is now back in the Cabinet again.

One of the most delicious parts of the Fackler article is this quote from Karel van Wolferen—yes, Mr. Oldie-But-Goodie himself:

“A half year of Hatoyama has produced more change than an entire year of Obama.”

Let’s reframe that: It is as if a commentator had praised President Obama in July 2009 for having kept his promise to withdraw American military forces from Afghanistan and shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo for good.

University of Tokyo Professor Yamauchi Masayuki is given the last word:

“(T)he changes they are making will not be easily undone.”

Now take another look at that excerpt of the Yomiuri editorial above.

What likely happened is that the Hatoyama administration, already doomed when the Times article appeared, was hunting for some positive press overseas to counteract the bad publicity they were getting at home for changing their tune on civil service reform. Members of the Japanese media are among the few that still take the New York Times seriously, and the DPJ probably hoped the story would filter back to Japan through the back door. The party could have easily fed the reporter the information in bite-sized chunks, made Mr. Haraguchi available for an interview, and even suggested tame professors for additional quotes.

If Martin Fackler’s still interested in this issue, by the way, I’d be happy to recommend a few books in Japanese to get him up to speed on what’s really happening. He should be able to find someone to read them and provide him with an English summary.

Of more pressing concern to the Japanese electorate, however, is the need for a reliable information source. The Yomiuri—the newspaper with the largest national circulation—obviously doesn’t meet those qualifications. Instead of selling journalism, they’re recording secretaries making their customers pay for mimeographs of ruling class PR handouts.

Meanwhile, what will Kan Naoto do now that he’s sold all the way out? Here’s a hint from the prime minister’s e-mail message distributed yesterday:

“The priority for me now is working to counteract the new social risk of isolation…Looking at the causes of suicide, very few people commit suicide because of poverty alone. They are poor and also don’t have any friends. They don’t have any family to turn to. The combination of isolation and poverty drives people to suicide.”

Leave it to a self-castrated political eunuch to make his priority a problem that politics will never solve.

Afterwords:

A long-time reader of the site is employed by a major Japanese mass media outlet. A few years ago, he wrote in to say that Karel van Wolferen adamantly refused to interact with anyone in Japanese when he was interviewed for a Japanese television program. Make of that what you will.

*****
Still the same old song, isn’t it?

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