Can’t go forward, can’t go back

Mainichi reports that prime ministerial initiatives in two areas — consumer affairs and regional decentralization — are stalled thanks largely to opposition from the ministries.

The government’s headquarters for the promotion of decentralization issued a mid-term report earlier this month on decentralization, which got no response (i.e., a cold response) from the various ministries and agencies who would see their power diminished and their resources redirected to prefectural and municipal governments. The HQ is aiming to make its initial recommendations in May and its final report in June, and in the meantime the reform package will be addressed on a ministry-by-ministry basis — which of course gives ministry bureaucrats ample opportunity to lean on their ministers to water down the package. Frustrated, the prime minister said, “I want ministers to decide as politicians and to strive steadily to promote regional decentralization.”

Meanwhile, at a hearing related to the prime minister’s plan to unify consumer affairs into a single agency, various ministries currently responsible for some aspect of consumer affairs (Agriculture, Health and Welfare, etc.) argued that it would be inefficient to transfer their specialists to a new agency, putting the future of the plan — a priority for the prime minister — in doubt.

Mr. Fukuda, in short, is stuck. He knows he has to implement reforms — not just to save his skin, but because he knows that Japan needs to change. But between the bureaucracy and the zoku, however, substantial and wide-reaching policy change is more or less out of the question, and Mr. Fukuda is too risk-averse (and not nearly “theatrical” enough) to choose a policy and then appeal over the heads of party and government directly to the people. The result is an endless cycle of worrying about Japan’s problems by politicians, media, and other elites, earnest talking about doing something to solve them, and watching as reform plans vested interests in the ministries and the LDP undermine and destroy them. At the same time, however, those vested interests will never enjoy the influence they once had. They can do little more than fight to preserve their shares in the system and prevent constructive reform that threatens their domains.

As such, it is silly to talk of the “twisted” Diet and suggest that DPJ is the biggest obstacle to progress on a number of fronts when they are much more obvious and entrenched culprits.

If anything, “regime change” might be the one way to achieve real reform. I say that not because the DPJ will be a better ruling party or because it has a clear agenda for Japan; I’m not so certain that either is true. But the inauguration of a DPJ-led government might be the closest thing to a revolution available to Japan today, as it would disrupt traditional ties between bureaucrats and LDP backbenchers. The DPJ would have to fight its own vested interests — especially the labor unions — but it would have more freedom to maneuver than Mr. Fukuda, trapped between the Scylla of the zoku and the Charybdis of the bureaucracy.

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