The Bureaucrats - Japan's Unelected Real Power

When former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took office five years ago, his aides begged Japan's senior bureaucrat, a man who had served seven Prime Ministers, to stay on for fear that the Government would descend into chaos without him.

Japan's Prime Minister heads the Government, of course, but some say that to encounter real power one must talk to the bureaucrats who effectively write the laws and really run the country.

Far more than in the West, the best and the brightest of Japan have chosen to sit for the grueling civil service exams and work for Government ministries. And while they are given cramped housing and low salaries, the governing system gives them the right to make most of the nation's policy virtually unhampered by politicians. With the election of LDP Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the fate of bureaucrats is secure.

"Kanryo," or bureaucrat, has generally been a neutral term in the minds of many Japanese, but in recent months it has become a tainted title. After a spate of colossal mistakes, the national trust in the bureaucracy has collapsed. The young men (and, very occasionally, women) who aced every test in school and ended up in the ministries are facing growing calls for a fundamental reallocation of power from their hands to elected politicians and the people.

Japanese bureaucrats essentially answer to no one, not the Cabinet ministers, not the Prime Minister and not the party leaders.

The Prime Minister has a small staff, which relies on the 12 ministries and the 260,000 bureaucrats who work in them. The ministers are political appointees who sail in above bureaucrats in title, but who are actually beholden to them for policy and background information.

Ministers speaking to politicians in Parliament often reply this way to questions, "Since this is an important issue, I must turn the floor over to the Government officials."

When a Cabinet minister dismissed a bureaucrat two years ago, an uproar erupted because ministers rarely make personnel decisions. In fact, they do not even bring in their own people, but inherit the top career officials who dominate policymaking in each ministry.

One result, critics say, is that bureaucrats have become alienated from the wishes of the people.

"They are in a different world from us ordinary people," said Nobuko Serizawa, a graduate student in economics. "The system is so murky, and they should be criticized for their inability to respond to the public."

The power and apathy of the bureaucracy has come with these revelations:

*Bureaucrats at the Health Ministry ignored warnings that blood supplies were contaminated with the virus that causes AIDS and for years resisted allowing imports of sterilized blood. A result was many deaths from AIDS among Japanese hemophiliacs.

*Ministry of Finance bureaucrats allowed banks and mortgage lenders to accumulate billions of dollars in bad loans, often through cozy relations with gangsters. Now the ministry is asking taxpayers to pay $6.5 billion in just the first installment of an Abe inspired clean-up plan.

*There was a cover-up after a minor accident at a nuclear reactor, making Japanese lose confidence in the competence and safety assurances of bureaucrats running the nation's reactor program.  Let us not forget Fukushima Daiichi and the revelations of how bureaucrats and industry conspired to move around safety procedures and standards to get the plant online in 1972.

*The police for years ignored the rise of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, even as it was accused of killing its critics.

*The Government was paralyzed by the huge 2011 earthquake that devastated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that TEPCO ran. It seems that many might have been saved if the authorities had acted more quickly.

Few people are as pained and angered by the bureaucratic incompetence as a 46-year-old real estate entrepreneur, a hemophiliac who became infected with the AIDS virus through tainted blood. A mild-mannered man who keeps his condition a secret for fear of social discrimination, he now helps lead a group of victims filing a suit against Health Ministry bureaucrats.

"If they had known they would have to take responsibility for decisions they make, then I don't think this kind of virtual murder could have happened," he said.

About 400 hemophiliacs and other former hospital patients have already died and thousands more now have H.I.V. because bureaucrats promoted the use of tainted blood for hemophiliacs and banned sterilized blood from being imported into Japan. Ministry bureaucrats finally allowed sterilized blood to be imported in mid-1985, after all major countries had already approved the new clotting agents, which are treated with heat to kill viruses.

Only after the election of the DPJ's Yukio Hatoyama in 2009 has there been any serious discussion of taking on the bureaucrats.  What stood in the way of reform was the LDP and bureaucrats forming an alliance to bring down the DPJ, as both were afraid revelations of bribes, kick backs, and extortion would be brought to light.  Hatoyama was destroyed by the LDP and bureaucrat alliance.  After Hatoyama the DPJ instilled Kan who was brought down for his handling of the 2011 eartquake and tsunami.  Then Noda was displaced by the LDP rebirth in December 2012 when the LDP was brought back into power.

Many critics argue that amakudari is central to the bureaucracy's failure in recent years. Officials of the Health Ministry, for example, may have been sympathetic to pharmaceutical companies because their ex-colleagues were working there or because they themselves were looking for posts in the industry within a few years.

There is already a restriction preventing bureaucrats from taking jobs in such companies until two years after their retirement. But some in the Finance Ministry have proposed making that five years. Of course there is no restriction against bureaucrats going into politics, and many do run for office.  Many also are appointed to major universities as "research and advisory" positions.

"Japanese bureaucrats are too powerful," said Matsuzo Nakamura, a 56-year-old machinery salesman. "We have to use any opportunity to revolutionize the bureaucratic system."

Sheryl Wu Dunn


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