TO outsiders, little of it made sense. The city of Kobe had just been devastated by a massive earthquake, and here was the Japanese bureaucracy, almost deliberately trying to foil the rescue operation, holding Swiss sniffer dogs in quarantine even though they might have saved some of those trapped under the rubble, delaying the arrival of a French medical team and declining offers of free American medicine. To insiders like Masao Miyamoto, however, the logic was clear. For whatever one might have imagined to be national priorities at the time, the bureaucracy's number one objective was, as always, to protect its own powers, and it could only do that by enforcing the rules, even when lives were at stake. Every country has a bureaucracy, but Japan's, according to a small but increasingly vociferous group of bureaucracy-bashers, of which Mr Miyamoto is a prominent figure, has got out of hand. Mr Miyamoto goes so far as to compare Japan's army of administrators to that of the former Soviet Union. 'Japan isn't really democratic. It's a society very much like totalitarianism with an elite bureaucracy running everything,' he said. Until last February, Mr Miyamoto was an official in Japan's Ministry of Public Health, where he worked for nine years. But then he was sacked, ostensibly because he had taken a trip abroad without going through the red tape of getting permission - no matter that he was using holiday time owed - and because he was not at his post in the Kobe quarantine office after the earthquake. 'But it was only a pretext,' said Mr Miyamoto. They had been wanting to get rid of him for years. Mr Miyamoto has created quite a stir in Japan by writing not just one, but three books, plus numerous newspaper articles exposing the Kafkaesque extremes of the country's bureaucracy. He has appeared on television talk shows tittering over some of the worst misdemeanours and pleading for reform. And he has become a celebrity speaker on the luncheon circuit in North America and Europe, which many of his colleagues see as outright treachery. The works obviously have struck a chord with ordinary Japanese. Mr Miyamoto's first book, Straitjacket Society, has sold 440,000 copies in Japan. A second, about bureaucratic taboos, has netted sales of 100,000. And the third, perhaps helped by the publicity generated by his dismissal the day before its launch, has already sold 200,000 copies. One look at this iconoclast and you get some idea of why the Japanese bureaucracy did not like him. Insisting on maintaining his individualism rather than sacrificing his entire life to help run Japan Inc, he sports flashy European ties, a crew cut, trendy glasses and a chin of designer stubble. In contrast, most Japanese bureaucrats go for sober neckwear, non-descript hair styles and spectacles, and appear unshaven only after toiling hours Mr Miya-moto refused to work unless neces-sary. Worse still, he actually took all his holiday time, refused to spend his weekends getting drunk and playing gold with his peers, and he talked back to his superiors. Like some of the other anti-bureaucracy crusaders, Mr Miyamoto, a former psychiatrist who spent 11 years working in the United States, dares to utter what many Japanese believe, but are too bashful to say: the elected representatives of the people don't really legislate but leave law-making up to a bureaucracy whose very existence depends on drawing up more and more rules. The price Japanese people pay for this bureaucracy, according to critics, is high. It means consumers pay even when the rising yen should make imports cheaper, that foreigners are locked out of domestic markets, that corporations and ordinary people have to put up with absurdities normally identified with places like former Eastern Europe or China. And, as in the communist block, the individual is suffocated for the sake of the state. Particularly within the bureaucracy, where Mr Miyamoto was steadily demoted right down to the Kobe quarantine office, holding a position normally filled only when the system wants to isolate and force out a miscreant. 'I was literally quarantined,' he said. Bullied by his bosses for refusing to conform, Mr Miyamoto coped - to the chagrin of the bureaucracy - with the psychological stress by writing. Another man on a reform-officialdom mission is Kenichi Ohmae, a former business consultant with McKinsey & Co who ran for governor of Tokyo. Poor handling of the Kobe disaster was one factor which catapulted him into politics. 'There are a lot of regulations in Japan and they are a major obstacle for citizens in achieving a more meaningful life,' said Yoko Ueno, an Ohmae spokesperson. The cost of building a house could be halved if materials were imported from Australia, for example, but a restrictive trade regime made up of non-tariff barriers protects Japanese suppliers. 'If the United States has 10 inspection regulations, we have 20 or 30,' said Ms Ueno. Mr Ohmae - sometimes compared to Ross Perot, the rabble-rousing billionaire candidate for the US presidency in 1992 - and his 35,000-member, three-year-old 'Reform of Heisei' movement want the Japanese people, or at least their elected representatives, to seize real control of the country from the bureaucrats. 'Legislators can't make their own bills. Of course, it's legally possible, but they don't do it,' said Ms Ueno. But can these upstarts really change the system? 'Certainly there is more discussion about the bureaucracy now than five years ago because journalists, academics and people like Miyamoto are writing about it in a critical way,' said a Tokyo-based American businessman. The press teems with accounts of red tape peculiarities which cast the bureaucracy in an unflattering light. For example, the bureaucracy refused to give the world's only indoor ski slope, near Narita airport, permission to operate without a wind metre. Never mind that there is no wind in this unique recreational facility. The bureaucracy said there had never been a ski slope in the country without a wind metre, and to get permission to open without one would take at least six months. The ski slope now has two wind metres - which never turn over. 'There's a movement to reform the bureaucracy, but it will fail,' said John Stern, Vice-President/Asia of the American Electronics Association. This is because of a huge contradiction in the Japanese psyche. 'Most Japanese understand that if the bureaucracy had less control, there would be new businesses which would supply more and better jobs,' Mr Stern said. 'But fundamentally, most Japanese are happy with the success of post-war Japan. The notion that Japan will change is the triumph of hope over experience.' 'Despite all the criticisms of the bureaucracy,' said the American businessman. 'It's undeniable they are free of graft and corruption, intelligent, and think they are acting on behalf of the nation. If you ask people, would you trust bureaucrats, politicians or businessman, most people would say they trust the bureaucrats.' Hopes of a shake-up in the system had been raised when the Liberal Democratic Party in 1993 fell from power after decades of control. Finally, it appeared, issues would be debated. But instead, the government has been in so much turmoil with coalitions coming together and then splitting up that if anyone is in control, it is not the politicians. 'The bureaucrats are having a field day,' said the businessman. Last week, for example, the coalition government announced a long-promised five-year deregulation plan. But the package largely involved mere reviews of regulations, rather than specific and immediate action to dismantle the web of rules protecting vested commercial interests. The American ambassador in Tokyo expressed disappointment. 'Deregulation is not going to happen because it means down-sizing the bureaucracy. It's like telling the bureaucrats, look, you have to go hang yourself,' said Mr Miyamoto. Mr Miyamoto and the Ohmae camp admit it will be hard to change Japan. But they do see glimmers of hope. Millions of Japanese travel abroad each year and are astounded to discover the higher quality of life enjoyed in economically less-successful countries. New graduates coming on to the job market do not have their parents' faith that the system will take care of them and are anxious for change. Even the bizarre religious cult, the Aum Shinri Kyo, suspected of being behind the recent Tokyo mass transit gas poisoning, is seen on one level as a rebellion against the system. Perhaps the biggest pressures for change, according to analysts, will come from foreigners demanding Japan to open up its markets, and from Japan's own need to remain competitive in international trade. Then again, Japan has done a pretty good job of keeping itself cushioned from foreign competition at home while doing well in markets abroad despite pressures. Defenders of the status quo, such as Mr Miyamoto's former superiors, argue that whatever the inadequacies of the bureaucracy might be, there is little question that Japan Inc works. Sure, sneers Mr Miyamoto, 'it's a great system. The only disadvantage is you have to become a human robot. As long as you don't mind not having a personal life, the system is perfect.' Bungling along A FEW pearls of wisdom and gems of bureaucratic absurdities from Masao Miyamoto: 'The amount of information that may be accessed [by the bureaucracy] is mind-boggling . . . the bureaucracy is fully comparable to the CIA or KGB.' ' 'Promote your vested rights at all costs,' is the golden rule of bureaucrats.' 'In the Japanese government, choosing to exercise a natural right can lead to ostracism.' 'Recently, as everyone knows, the yen has increased in value. Trading companies decided to use this opportunity to import cheaper meat from the United States to benefit the consumer. 'The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries moved in and delivered an administrative guidance warning: 'Don't import too much beef. We don't want to see too much fluctuation in the market prices'. 'Of course, the companies began to comply with this guidance and they stopped importing cheaper beef.' 'The Ministry of Health and Welfare has never approved the marketing of oral contraceptives . . . 'They stated that out of a deep concern for public health, they feared that oral contraceptives would become a factor in the spread of AIDS.' And from one of Mr Miyamoto's superiors: 'You may bow to the politicians, but underneath you just laugh at their ineptness. A bureaucrat's ability is determined by his capacity to manipulate the politicians.'