Shinzo Abe seeks to wrest power of appointment from civil servants

Japanese prime minister's effort to seize control of top appointments is seen as the biggest threat to public servants since the US occupation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 4:26am

The bureaucracy that oversaw Japan's post-war economic boom and a two-decade stagnation faces the biggest threat to its power since the US occupation as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to seize control of ministries' most senior appointments.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, 64, is leading the initiative. The proposal being debated in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party would give the Cabinet Secretariat oversight of top bureaucrats' promotions.

The plan would open a path to accelerating change as Abe, 58, readies steps from strengthening the military to bringing Japan into the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc and paring agriculture regulation.

Enacting it could bring an end to promotions influenced by tenure and support from bureaucratic peers in a system cemented over decades when politicians relied on civil servants to nurture exports and dole out public works.

"When you want to change the direction of national strategy, it becomes very important to rein in the bureaucracy," said Kenneth Pyle, a University of Washington professor of Asian studies in Seattle, who has been teaching Japanese history since the 1960s. "Abe realises that if he's going to succeed he has to be able to centralise policymaking." The civil service wields power over the budget, from approving construction projects to bestowing foreign aid. Seniority often trumps merit in deciding appointments.

Success isn't certain - three similar attempts in the past five years unravelled as officials, along with some lawmakers, pushed back against change. The Democratic Party of Japan swept into office in 2009 on a platform that included a vow to wrest power from the ministries, only to end up enacting the first legislation to raise the national sales tax since 1997 - something long sought by the Finance Ministry.

DPJ lawmaker Hirohisa Fujii said in August 2009 it was outrageous that bureaucrats had a prime role in crafting the budget. Three years later, his colleague Yoshihiko Noda pushed the consumption-levy increase through parliament after backing the move while finance minister. The step triggered a split in the party and the collapse of Noda's administration, setting up the December election that ushered Abe back into office.

"The new legislation will not work unless there is a strong disciplinarian in charge to control it," said Jun Okumura, the senior adviser to the Eurasia Group in Tokyo.

"Regardless of that, Abe has been making some very interesting senior appointments to push through his agenda, starting with Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda, who was plucked from outside the mainstream."

The government dumped the head of Japan Post Holdings, a Finance Ministry insider selected days before Abe took office, and replaced him with Taizo Nishimuro, the former chairman and chief executive of Toshiba. The new head of the coastguard is the first chosen from within the ranks, rather than someone from the Transport Ministry. The Health and Welfare Ministry has its first woman deputy minister, a step in keeping with Abe's push to put women in 30 per cent of leadership positions.

Reducing opposition to the reform of appointments would aid Abe's efforts to reshape the economy, as his administration prepares legislation on industries from health care to agriculture and energy. The bill on appointing the top officials is also planned this year.

"Political control of the bureaucracy will strengthen sharply, as incentives for civil servants shift to serving the government, rather than the personnel departments of their own agencies," Robert Feldman, head of Japan economic research at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities in Tokyo, said last month.

The Abenomics campaign to end 15 years of deflation through monetary easing, stimulus spending and structural change has helped drive the Topix index of stocks up 44 per cent since the December election. The yen has fallen about 14 per cent against the US dollar in that period, helping exporters' profits.

Abe's coalition was strengthened last month by winning a majority in the upper house of the Diet, enabling passage of legislation without opposition support. His bigger source of concern is now internal dissent - something he faces with the civil-service-appointment proposal.

If you're not right in the thick of things, you won't know what abilities a person has and what experience
Makoto Koga, Critic of The Plan

"Resistance comes from both bureaucrats and lawmakers," LDP deputy policy chief Yasuhisa Shiozaki, who has pushed for change since Abe's first administration in 2006-2007, said last month. "The details are yet to be decided and there are extremes of opinion on both sides."

Among opponents within the ruling LDP is former transport minister Makoto Koga, who said: "I don't think the cabinet should have this power - I think each minister should have the right to pick the top officials, as in the past. If you're not right in the thick of things, you won't know what abilities a person has and what experience they have built up as a bureaucrat. Will you be able to pick the right person every time?"

While criticised for inflexibility and infighting between ministries, Japan's bureaucrats are generally dedicated, often working through the night to brief ministers.

The bureaucracy saw some change during the American occupation led by General Douglas MacArthur, when tests for the civil service were altered to break the near monopoly of Tokyo University graduates. A new agency, the National Personnel Authority, was established to oversee recruitment and training, and set standards for appointments and dismissals. But the bureaucracy still basically kept its importance.

During the 1960s economic boom, bureaucrats honed the practice of gyosei shido, or administrative guidance. For example, Ministry for International Trade and Industry staff would direct manufacturers and the Finance Ministry would do the same to banks, according to Gary Alinson in his 2004 book Japan's Post-war History.

Bureaucratic influence also was cemented through the practice of amakudari, or descending from heaven, when senior career staff would retire in their 50s to take top posts in public corporations or private businesses. Others went into politics, with most of the LDP's post-war prime ministers until the late 1980s being ex-civil servants.

Abe's grandfather Nobusuke Kishi rose through the ranks of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry - which became MITI, and is now known as the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry - before entering politics and serving as prime minister in the late 1950s.

Pyle said this background may offer Abe perspective on how to approach bureaucratic reforms, making him less likely to adopt a confrontational stance.

Civil-service power has waned in recent decades from its heyday, with the rise of LDP policy groups and repeated efforts by administrations to strengthen the role of politicians.

"Bureaucrats can be obstructive, but I don't think anyone in Japan worries that they hold all the power these days - that's no longer a concern," said Takeshi Sasaki, a former president of Tokyo University. Even so, the proposal to wrest top appointments away from the ministries may require politicians relying on bureaucrats themselves to write the legislative language for the change.

The impact of past reform has been limited, according to political scientist Koichi Nakano.

"If the move to centralise appointments under the prime minister's office were to succeed, it would be the biggest blow to bureaucratic power since the end of the US occupation," said Nakano, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. "This legislation will doubtless also be opposed by all the ministries. I think it will end in compromise."