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July 7, 2008

Straitjacket of Bureaucracy Japan's Own Worst Enemy

Would-be consumer agency's clout threatened by bureaucracies' self-preservation instincts, long-held policies favoring producers

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor, Foreign Press Center Japan, and Lecturer, Waseda University)

Under Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's initiatives, a consumer agency is scheduled to be launched next year to take over matters related to consumer protection from various ministries. At a time when livelihoods are threatened by a number of issues - from pensions to medical care - such a body is deemed crucial for enhancing consumer protection amid mounting cases of fraud and problems related to food and other consumer products.

"Priority to livelihood" is the slogan being touted by the embattled prime minister - whose approval rating is hovering dangerously low - though it sounds a lot like a populist gimmick. Media commentaries are not convinced about how much real muscle the new agency will have, and as a result, the public is skeptical too.

This is because they know that for the would-be agency to be really effective, it will have to wage enormous battles on two fronts - first, with existing bureaucracies keen to protect their own power, and in turn, with those bureaucracies' long-held policies that put the promotion of producers ahead of consumer interests. What is the extent of Fukuda's resolve heading into these confrontations?

Already, resistance from various ministries' bureaucrats to ceding their power to the planned agency is all too blatant and unabashed. Of the 75 laws relating to consumer affairs - now falling under their jurisdiction - they have agreed to transfer only 30 to the new agency. Unsurprisingly, those given up by competent bureaucracies are laws with relatively fewer teeth. The new agency is already pictured as a hut to be built on top of a castle.

Familiar roadblock
The consumer agency is said to mean a revolutionary switch from the government's old producer-oriented policies to consumer-oriented policies, which are becoming a trend in other advanced countries. But as in many other areas, like deregulation or decentralization in favor of more power to localities, what is preventing a much-needed revolution is the formidable opposition from bureaucracies with die-hard instincts for self-preservation.

It has long been apparent that bureaucracies are more of a problem than a solution. Not only do they prevent necessary reform, they also do harm to the nation by various wrongdoing, some criminal, or by being adamant in refusing to admit policy mistakes. No wonder people's confidence in them is extremely low.

The tragedy is that there are few signs that their power is being reduced - their grip on the nation appears as firm as ever.

A pressing task for Japan is to extricate itself from its bureaucratic straitjacket. There have been several attempts at making progress toward this end, but they have not been very successful.

The latest one is the civil servant system reform bill passed by the Diet in early June. Although it remains to be seen how effective it will be in actually dismantling the bureaucratic juggernaut, it is considered a landmark legislation of sorts - intended to give power to the Cabinet for the appointment of senior career officers at each ministry.

At present, these officers are appointed by the respective minister within the framework of each ministry's personnel dynamics. The result is that virtually indestructible walls have been erected by each ministry, which are primarily concerned with their own interests to the exclusion of the overall interests of the government or the nation. The government thus is a collection of closed ministerial worlds.

In theory, the Japanese government is a parliamentary cabinet system, like the Westminster model of the U.K. In this system, each minister in the cabinet as appointed by the prime minister - who is elected by the parliament - is supposed to be in a position to control bureaucrats on behalf of electorates.

In practice, however, it is the other way around in Japan. Each minister is effectively controlled by bureaucrats and is an agent of the ministry before he or she is a member of the cabinet. This is often called a "bureaucratic cabinet system" - or as political scientist Jun Iio pointed out, it is even sarcastically dubbed "the United Ministries of Japan."

Problems with such a bureaucracy-dominated system are obvious, as bureaucracies have strong natural tendencies to protect themselves and their power.

What makes this more problematic is that bureaucrats tend to be closely linked to industry or other special interest groups. Moreover, politicians are liable to being party to the connection through their incestuous relationship with bureaucrats.

The absence of a reliable system for protection of consumer interests has its roots in this politico-bureaucratic setup, which has existed for decades. When the nation's industry and productive power was fledgling and insufficient, it might have made sense to give priority to helping producers, but that is no longer the case in times of abundant productive power relative to a chronic shortage of consumer demand.

System trouble
Under the circumstances, politics in Japan is a mess - or stagnant at best - failing to solve mounting problems that make national livelihoods increasingly insecure. The wobbly government of Fukuda is locked in a futile standoff with the opposition forces led by the Democratic Party of Japan, which looks no less unreliable and ill-equipped to govern the nation.

What political parties really have to face up to and fight against may not be each other, but rather the juggernaut of bureaucracies. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi actually took a crack at doing this, but the job was left incomplete.

The issue remains a long overdue and increasingly pressing task. Bureaucracies are the real enemies of the nation - their straitjacket continues to squeeze and choke. Any political party will be able to capture the hearts and minds of the public if it comes up with the necessary resolve to tear down Japan's seemingly indestructible bureaucracies.

(Originally appeared in the June 30, 2008 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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