BUREAUCRACY IN JAPAN: HISTORY, DAILY LIFE AND POWERFUL MINISTRIES

BUREAUCRACY IN JAPAN

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Ministry of Economy,
Trade, Industry
Japan is arguably controlled more by the country's strong central bureaucracy than it is by its elected officials. There are thousands of rules and regulations overseen by the bureaucracy that businesses, government agencies and ordinary citizens have to abide by. Companies need licenses and people need to pass tests for doing all kinds of things.Traditionally 80 percent of policies were shaped by bureaucrats and 20 percent by elected country leaders. There are over one million civil servants in the Japanese government and the economic ministries. The national bureaucracy includes 332,999 general administration staff.

The Japanese bureaucracy is composed of Japan's best and brightest. Many bureaucrats are graduates of Japan's most prestigious universities and often carry themselves with a swagger usually associated with important politicians and executives. In 1996, 45,000 of Japan's brightest young people applied for 780 positions in the senior civil service. The career path of civil servants is largely determined on an individual’s performance on three exams: category I (the highest) to category III. In a typical year about 600 public servants pass the category I exam and are treated as fast-track bureaucrats who are guided towards senior positions.

“As of 2011, Japan’s central government offices operate according to a system based on a pyramidal structure of rank. Responsibility for setting the boundaries of authority of the posts within each ministry and agency rests in the hands of the cabinet members. In Japan, persons who are engaged in administrative activities in the various central government offices, including vice ministers (jimu jikan) and all ordinary public servants of lesser rank, are selected on the basis of national public service examinations; their jobs are not political appointments nor are they subject to being lost as a result of political power changes at the cabinet level. After the reorganization of government ministries, the privatization of Japan National Railways, and the recent privatization of the postal service in 2007, the number of national public servants (excluding members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces) stood at 333,800 as of 2010. At the end of January 2001, before the ministries were reorganized, the number of public servants totaled 1.268 million. The constitution specifies that “all public officials are servants of the whole community and not of any group thereof.” In Japan, the independent standing of the judicial branch of government is protected, and the constitution stipulates that “no disciplinary action against judges shall be administered by any executive organ or agency.” [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Websites and Resources

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Ministry of Home Affairs
Good Websites and Sources: Photos of Government Ministry Buildings at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Bureaucrats, Politicians and Policy Change in Japan japanesestudies.org.uk ; Japanese Bureaucracy Hollowing Out? Pdf file rieti.go.jp/en ; Bureaucrats Under Pressure atimes.com/atimes ; Library of Congress Country Studies countrystudies.us ; Bureaucratic Corruption in Japan jpri.org/publications

Links in this Website: GOVERNMENT AND SYMBOLS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER AND PARLIAMENT Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; POLITICS AND ELECTIONS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; POLITICIANS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BUREAUCRACY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; CORRUPTION AND GOVERNMENT SCANDALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TAXES, WELFARE AND SOCIAL SECURITY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;

Good Government Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article on the Government of Japan Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on the Japanese Flag Wikipedia ; Government Organization Chart kantei.go.jp and kantei.go.jp/foreign/link/chart ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Government Chapter stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook ; 2010 Edition stat.go.jp/english/data/nenkan ; News stat.go.jp Governments on the WWW--- Japan Linksgksoft.com ; Japan Echo, a Journal on Japanese Politics and Society japanecho.com ; Electronic Journal of Japanese Studies japanesestudies.org

Prime Minister, Legislature and Leaders: CIA List of Current World Leaders /www.cia.gov/library ; Kantei, Office of the Prime Minister kantei.go.jp ; Cabinet Office cao.go.jp ; House of Representatives (Shugiin) shugiin.go.jp ; House of Councillors (Sangiin) sangiin.go.jp/ ; National Diet Library ndl.go.jp/en National Diet Building in Tokyo Photos of National Diet Building at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Japan Visitor Japan Visitor ; Japanese Lifestyle japaneselifestyle.com.au Constitution Constitution of Japan solon.org/Constitutions/Japan ; Birth of the Constitution of Japan ndl.go.jp/constitution ; Research Commission on the Constitution shugiin.go.jp ;

Cabinet’s Role in Governing and Controlling the Bureaucracy

The cabinet has under its control and coordination a number of ministries and other central administrative organs to which it delegates the exercise and control of many routine tasks of Japan’s central government. As part of reform efforts that were aimed at increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of government operations, in January 2001 the executive branch of the government underwent an extensive reorganization in which the number of existing ministries and ministry-level commissions and agencies, 22 at that time, was cut almost in half. In addition to the newly created Cabinet Office, the cabinet includes 11 ministries, the 11th being created in January 2007 when the DefenseAgency became the Ministry of Defense. As of 2011, each ministry is headed by a minister of state appointed by the prime minister. Each minister is assisted by one or two senior viceministers and up to three parliamentary secretaries. These officials are usually members of the Diet. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

The cabinet, the majority of whose members must come from the Diet, is the supreme decision-making organ of the executive branch of government. The prime minister, who heads the cabinet, has the right to appoint and dismiss ministers of state (kokumu daijin) who make up the cabinet. He or she presides over cabinet meetings and may exercise his or her right to control and guide the various sectors of the state administrative apparatus. So-called cabinet resolutions are reached on the basis of a unanimity of views. The prime minister and all members of the cabinet must be, according to the constitution, civilians. The constitution also states, “executive power shall be vested in the Cabinet.” [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“However, the cabinet has under its control and coordination a number of ministries and other central administrative organs to which it delegates the exercise and control of many routine tasks of Japan’s central government. As part of reform efforts that were aimed at increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of government operations, in January 2001 the executive branch of the government underwent an extensive reorganization in which the number of existing ministries and ministry-level commissions and agencies, 22 at that time, was cut almost in half. In addition to the newly created Cabinet Office, the cabinet includes 11 ministries, the 11th being created in January 2007 when the DefenseAgency became the Ministry of Defense. As of 2011, each ministry is headed by a minister of state appointed by the prime minister. Each minister is assisted by one or two senior viceministers and up to three parliamentary secretaries. These officials are usually members of the Diet. [Ibid]

“The Cabinet Office was created by the 2001 reorganization in order to strengthen cabinet functions and the prime minister’s overall policy leadership capability. Headed by the prime minister, the Cabinet Office drafts plans and provides comprehensive coordination from a level one step above other government ministries and agencies. The Cabinet Office oversees the Imperial Household Agency and three external bureaus: Fair Trade Commission, National Public Safety Commission, and Financial Services Agency. In addition to the ministers of state for special missions, the Cabinet Office also includes the following three important policy councils: Council for Science and Technology Policy, Central Disaster Management Council, and Council for Gender Equality. Taken together, the Cabinet Office, the ministries, and the various agencies and commissions are known as the central government offices (chuo shocho). [Ibid]

History of Japanese Bureaucracy

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Prussia was the model
when Japan developed its
bureaucracy in the 19th century
The power of the bureaucrats dates back to the Meiji period (1968-1912), when, one economist told Time, the ideal "was to staff the ministry with the ablest graduates of the elite university so they would be imperious to questioning from the public or the legislature.” One Meiji period slogan went: "Revere the bureaucrat, despise the people."

The bureaucracy become powerful after World War II after Japan's capitalists, landlords and military officers---the traditional power brokers---were stripped of the power, influence and wealth. It has long been argued that the prominence of the bureaucracy in Japan was linked to Confucianism and Chinese influence but in reality its has more to do with changes brought about by Americans after World War II.

The strong, inflexible bureaucracy and top-down decision making criticized by many Americans today was instituted by the American at the end of World War II so they could control the Japanese government. Historian John Dower wrote, "The Americans came in, said they were doing democracy. They don’t want to work through the Diet, they want to work thought the bureaucracy...The Americans created this more bureaucratic Japan, and indeed, encouraged it."

Kakuei Tanaka, prime minister of Japan in the 1960s and 70s, forged "Iron Triangles” between business, the bureaucracy and the Liberal Democratic Party. The cornerstone of Iron Triangle patronage system was getting government ministries to approve huge public works programs and granting the contracts to construction companies which employed retired bureaucrats and LDP loyalists and supported the LPD further by getting out the vote for the LDP in the areas where they were based.

In 2006, Koizumi proposed reducing the bureaucracy by 5 percent over 5 years. Understandible there was a great of resistance to this idea from bureaucrats.

See Foreign Ministry

Bureaucracy and Everyday Life in Japan

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hanko
Residency permits are needed to live in any city. Whenever an individual or household moves they must report the move to local authorities at the city hall for their area and get a report which they take to the city they are moving to. Often a family is required to submit a “family registry” which list births, divorces, deaths and domiciles for their extended family.

Japanese citizens were outraged by an attempt by the government to give every individual an 11 digit number and put their registry permit information on a computer database in an effort to streamline the registry process. Local governments defied orders by the national government to comply with the effort and protestors decorated with bar codes drawn on their faces took to the streets. Citizens were worried most about confidentiality issues, namely what would happen if their personal information got into the wrong hands.

Beginning in 2004, drivers licenses in Japan were imbedded with “smart chips” that carries identity information and private information that was previously printed on the license.

Family Registries and Privacy Issues

All citizens of Japan are required to be accounted for through the family registry system and to be listed on a family registrar kept in a local government office as required by the Family Registration Law. The records are kept in the local government offices. There is no national network.

The family registry documents marriage, births and deaths. The registry system was introduced in the Meiji period in the 19th century as means of keeping track of its population. The government also keeps track of people through tax, pension and health care records. The government issues identity cards and requires anyone who moves to record the move with local authorities.

A complete copy or an extract of a family register is usually required for inheritance purposes, such as gaining access to a deceased person's bank accounts. Family registry data is often required for other things such as getting a marriage license and registering a newborn child.

With Japan's penchant for privacy, municipalities in Japan don't keep detailed records of where residents live. It's not like China where people are registered and the government tries to keep tabs on them.

Family Register Back-Up

Family registers are official documents containing the personal information of individuals, such as their dates of birth and death and family relations. People register such information at municipal government offices, and the governments keep the data independently.

In September 2011, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The Justice Ministry plans to launch a national network system to store backup data of family registers following the loss of data kept at four municipalities in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures due to the March 11 tsunami, it has been learned.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 29, 2011]

As of 2011, there was no computer network linking municipal governments with the Justice Ministry and its regional legal affairs bureaus. The municipalities make copies of family registers on tape, and send the tapes to the regional legal affairs bureau in charge of their areas.

The governments of Minami-Sanrikucho and Onagawacho in Miyagi Prefecture, and Rikuzen-Takata and Otsuchicho in Iwate Prefecture lost family register data after the March 11 tsunami destroyed their government buildings. The Sendai Regional Legal Affairs Bureau's branch office in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, kept copies of Minami-Sanrikucho's family registers, but the branch office was also submerged under the tsunami. Local residents worried that their town's family registers may have been lost completely.

Fortunately, the branch office's magnetic tapes were safe. However, as the Minami-Sanrikucho municipal government only sends tapes at the end of the fiscal year, almost all of Minami-Sanrikucho's family register data from fiscal 2010 was lost. The branch office tried to restore the lost family register data from information recorded on paper documents and kept at the branch office. However, it was impossible for the branch office to completely restore the family register data, and the loss of data delayed inheritances, marriages and other procedures.

National ID System

In January 2011, the Japan government announced plans for a comprehensive identification system to be implemented in 2015. The hope is that the program will improve social services and make taxation more fair but also raised questions about privacy issues. Hiroshi Arimitsu wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “The ID system would be wide-ranging, covering pension premiums and benefits, medical services, social security programs and tax returns. Each citizen would be covered by the system, as well as medium- and long-term foreign residents and those with permanent residency, according to the basic plan. Everybody will be given a unique number, likely based on the current resident register number.” [Source:Hiroshi Arimitsu, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 30, 2011]

“The system would store personal information such as name, date of birth, address, gender, annual income and number of dependents, the basic plan said. Registered corporate bodies, estimated at 2 million nationwide, would also be subject to the ID system. A major advantage of a national identification system using integrated circuit (IC) cards would be the greatly improved access to information on tax and insurance premiums paid, and pension benefits, medical care and other social services received, government officials said.” [Ibid]

“The IC cards would function as health insurance cards, nursing-care insurance cards and pension books. The system would make it easier to prevent recording errors and loss of benefits due to changes in residence, employment or marital status, while considerably reducing the number of documents one must attach when filing social security and tax forms, the officials said. [Ibid]

“Under the current system, in which large payments for nursing care and medical expenses are partially refunded by the government, refunds are made only after a person has made the payments in full. But a computerized ID system would make balancing premium payments and social security service expenses easy and speedy. People could be exempted from paying for nursing or medical care when their payments for these services go above a certain level on an annual basis.” [Ibid]

“The planned ID system also has drawn attention from local governments, as it is expected to prevent welfare abuses, such as individuals applying for benefits with several different city, town or village governments. An ID system also could play a big role if the consumption tax rate is increased. Any hike in the consumption tax likely would be accompanied by tax cuts or tax credits for those in low-income brackets. The government also is studying a so-called negative income tax, or cash benefits for those earning lower than the minimum taxable income, similar to the earned income tax credit that has been in place in the United States for more than 30 years.” [Ibid]

“Probably the stickiest issue in implementing a nationwide ID system is ensuring personal information is properly protected. To ensure private data is safe, the draft plan calls for a third-party organization to monitor the system, and would give citizens a way to determine whether their personal data has been leaked, they said. Other discussions on the system will center around the extent to which data in the system can be linked to businesses. The ID system could be used to ascertain if a person has an account at a certain bank or securities company, as well as the account's balance. However, many believe the public will resist having their financial assets covered by a government ID system.” [Ibid]

In July 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Ruling and opposition parties have confirmed they will agree to a revision of government-backed bills on the introduction of a personal identification number system. The planned approval by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito will lead to the creation of the My Number system, under which each citizen will be given a personal identification number that will help the nation's security services and taxation system operate more effectively. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 28, 2012]

“The government hopes to roll out the number system in January 2015. It is planning to increase the consumption tax rate through bills on the integrated reform of the social security and tax systems, which will involve offering tax deductions and cash benefits to low-income earners. The My Number system is being created to enable the provision of such measures. The government-backed bills stipulate that the state will issue a card based on a person's ID number, but each person must apply for the card themselves. This has prompted the LDP to criticize the system as unfriendly for users. [Ibid]

In November 2010, Resona Bank and Saitama Resona Bank became Japan’s first major banks to use biometric bank counters that can verify a person’s identity by reading the patterns formed by veins on their fingertips.

Bureaucratic Power in Japan

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Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Bureaucrats have traditionally been thought of as more capable of governing than politicians. It is said that the Japanese bureaucracy views itself as being better able to take care of the needs of the Japanese people than the Japanese people themselves or the representatives they elected.

Because the Japanese bureaucracy plays such a strong role in determining policy, politicians, even prime ministers, are considered part timers who have little power and have to be taught how to make the "right decisions." One prominent Japanese politician told the New York Times, "The prime minister has been just a figurehead, 100 percent controlled by bureaucrats." The tendency of prime minsters to frequently reshuffle their cabinets to keep every body in line means weak ministers, which have little control over the bureaucrats.

The Japanese bureaucracy traditionally made its decisions in secret and the people simply had to live with their decisions. Recent legislation and court decisions have made it somewhat easier for ordinary citizens to express their views and fight back against decisions they don’t like.

Privatization programs such as those for Japan Tobacco, NTT and Japan National Railroads have been slow and compromised by special interests. In many cases the process has ben undermined so that very little changed.

Bureaucrats and Politicians in Japan

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Ministry of Education, Sports
Legislators in Japan are regarded as weak and pliable. They have traditionally been easily pushed around by bureaucrats and their staffs are more preoccupy with serving tea to constituents than tackling difficult issues. Bureaucrats often speak on behalf of cabinet ministers in the Diet.

The Japanese bureaucracy has traditionally taken the lead in drafting new budget and writing legislation with legislature doing little more than rubber stamping the bureaucrats proposals. The power of bureaucrats was so so strong that politician were unable to cut spending and pass sweeping new laws. United States Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale told the New York Times magazine, "In the Diet, when you see bureaucrats also participating in the debates, answering questions, preparing amendments, preparing the budget, you realize that this is a society in which the publicly elected side is very limited."

A high-level bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance was overheard saying in 1990s, "Everyone in the current coalition government is a fool...The current administration moves exactly in line with the scenarios we write." When asked if was worried when a socialist became prime minister, another bureaucrat said, "No problem...We'll brief him with the 'right perspectives' on the issues.”

Through the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, bureaucrats delivered the goods and their authority was not questioned. But the failure of the bureaucrats to deal with Japan's economic problems in the 1990s and 2000s has led some Japanese to look more to politicians and political parties for policy solutions to Japan's problems.

Bureaucrats purposely have created regulations that go on for pages and pages that are specifically designed to be so confusing that no lawmaker or ordinary person could understand them or would want to spend the time to wade through them.

After the August 2009 elections threw out the old the party, the new leaders vowed to take power out of the hands of the bureaucrats and put it the hands of the politicians.One of the first things Hatoyama did was set up the Government Revitalization Unit that was in charge of identifying and cutting wasteful spending in the government. Resembling a cross between a Congressional budget hearing and a Spanish Inquisition interrogation, the hearings werw conducted by the units panels and were often short and harsh. Bureaucrats and supporters of projects deemed wasteful by the panel were given about 30 minutes to an hour to justify their programs and asked questions by a panel that often had little knowledge of the programs.

Hard Working Bureaucrats in Japan

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government documents
"Japanese bureaucrats," wrote Michael Williams in the Wall Street Journal, "routinely put in 14-hour days. And at the height of the year-end budget season, the busiest ones go a month or more without a day off and pull seven or eight all-nighters. Most of their work involves pouring over spreadsheets, consulting with one another and meeting with petitioners seeking budget increases."

During the budget season, from September to December, it is not unusual for officials in the Ministry of Finance to out in 250 hours of overtime a month. Some workers rarely go home. A survey in the early 2000s found that 10 percent of bureaucrats work 80 hours or more. Some say that when the Diet is in session they put in more than 200 hours a month of overtime a month with the average being 39 hours a month.

The Finance ministry has a sleeping room nicknamed "The Morgue" and the Agricultural ministry has a cubicle-filled dormitory called the "Silkworm Room." Doctors are occasionally called in to give overworked officials vitamin injections. One prostitute who had sex with a MOF official told a Japanese newspaper, "As soon as he finished his business with me, he took a drink from the refrigerator and started reading the papers in his briefcase."

Many important budgetary decisions are made around the time of the Emperors birthday in late December, when it is the Diet looks as if it is having a huge pajama party. "Bureaucrats who plan naps between number-crunching have piled futon mattresses on office floors," wrote Williams. "Bowls of pork stew, trays of sushi and bottles of beer conceal desktops. Many of the refreshments are gifts of municipalities and businesses seeking a bigger slice of the budgetary pie."

Ministry of Finance in Japan

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Ministry of Finance
The Ministry of Finance (MOF) is arguably the most powerful organization in Japan. Employing 11,000 hard working bureaucrats, it takes care of the duties performed in the United States by the U.S. Treasury, Federal Reserve, Internal Revenue Service, Office of Management and Budget, Securities and Exchange Commission and numerous other agencies.

The Ministry of Finance oversees Japan tightly regulated economy. It is responsible for collecting taxes, issuing bonds, printing money, insuring banks deposits and countless other duties. It sets the budget, runs the banks through oral directive known as "administrative guidance," and defines policy that not only shapes and outlines the path of the Japanese economy but influenced global trade in a number of key sectors.

The Ministry of Finance is an unpoliced bureaucratic organization that is accountable to no one---not Prime Minister, legislators, company CEOs or bank presidents---and it freely meddles in the affairs of banks and other financial institutions.

One of the main problems with the Ministry of Finance is that it has two conflicting purposes. One hand it supposed to be a regulatory agency that keeps an eyes an banks and major enterprises. On the other hand, it is major shareholder in many banks and enterprises and has to look out for those interests.

The Japanese economy has lived and died by the Ministry of Finance successes or failures. Its power has been diminished in recent years when proved to be ineffective doing something about Japan’s recession in the1990s and 2000s and a more freewheeling style of capitalism has emerged in Japan. It has also been involved in some corruption scandals (See Corruption) and been accused of having conflicts of interest. It has a cozy, incestuous relationships with the banks, financial industry and organized crime. After retiring many ministry employees, not surprising, get jobs in banks and securities firms.

Government Cuts Housing for Public Servants

In November 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The government has set a policy to reduce by one-quarter the number of state-managed housing units for national public servants in four years by tearing down or selling complexes in more than 5,000 locations, according to sources. The government currently owns such housing in about 10,000 locations nationwide. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 2012]

Those to be abolished include houses for senior officials, such as directors general and deputy directors general of bureaus of central ministries and agencies, in prime locations in Chiyoda, Minato and Chuo wards and other parts of central Tokyo. Each unit in the two buildings is about 90 square meters, and their combined listed price is 5.4 billion yen. The plan was announced together with another initiative to take steps to nearly double the rent for remaining state-run housing nationwide from fiscal 2014. [Ibid]

The buildings targeted for demolition or sale are those that will be more than 40 years old over the coming four years and have lower capacity to withstand earthquakes. The group of more than 5,000 locations was chosen because the units are small or far from workplaces. The government expects at least 100 billion yen in revenue from the sales of the properties nationwide, which will be used for financing reconstruction of areas devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake. [Ibid]

Image Sources: 1) Ray Kinnane 2) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 3) Goods from Japan 4), 5) Shugin, House of representatives website, buildings, Japan Photo japan-photo.de ;

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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