The first day of the new era in Japanese politics

The DPJ wasted no time following the election of Hatoyama Yukio as prime minister Wednesday.

His cabinet lineup established, the DPJ-led government immediately set to work establishing a new relationship between the cabinet, DPJ backbenchers, and the bureaucracy.

Regarding the DPJ, its internal organizations, and its numerous backbenchers, the new government announced several measures to strip the DPJ of any policymaking role. On Wednesday morning Fujii Hirohisa, the new finance minister, reiterated an earlier pledge to abolish the party’s tax commission and bolster the government’s tax commission, reversing the situation that prevailed under the LDP. More significantly, the DPJ dissolved its policy research council completely. Contrary to earlier plans, Kan Naoto won’t even carry the title of chair of the policy research council, because Ozawa Ichiro does not want cabinet members serving simultaneously in party posts. This single measure is a radical departure from LDP rule, under which the policy research council served as a shadow government, complete with committees and subcommittees mirroring the bureaus and offices of the bureaucracy. If bureaucrats wish to consult with politicians on policy, they’ll have to go through cabinet ministers and the national strategy bureau.

The new government immediately established new regulations governing contact between bureaucrats and politicians not holding cabinet or sub-cabinet appointments. The regulations will require to bureaucrats to make the contents of all requests from Diet members known to their ministers — and bans, in principle, efforts by bureaucrats to influence Diet members. Abolishing the policy research council will close off an important avenue of influence under LDP governments. The government has also mandated that bureaucrats save records related to requests for subsidies, licenses, contracts, and the like from backbenchers and their secretaries.

Regarding the bureaucracy, the DPJ has made clear that it intends to constrain bureaucrats’ activities. In particular, the DPJ plans to restrict media access to the bureaucracy, based on the idea that the cabinet is making policy and setting priorities and so its members should be responsible for explaining policies to the press, not the bureaucrats whose job is to execute the cabinet’s policies. Discussing this proposal last week, Okada Katsuya naturally cited the British example: permanent secretaries in Whitehall do not give press conferences. Instead the government issued a new policy Wednesday. Political appointees in ministries will be responsible for communicating ministry policy to the media, and regular administrative vice ministerial press conferences are abolished. (To centralize explanations of the government’s policies, the Hatoyama government ought to create a press secretary’s office.) Naturally journalists have complained about this change.

The DPJ will also abolish the administrative vice ministers’ council, which for 123 years has enabled bureaucrats to manage the work of the cabinet, as conservative newspapers did not fail to note in their reporting on its final meeting Monday. Bureaucrats will still meet amongst themselves, of course, but dissolving the council will strip them of a customary and powerful role in the policymaking process, hammering out disagreements across ministries before cabinet meetings.

The thinking underlying this framework can be found in a document released by the cabinet Wednesday. The document stresses that changing the balance of power between politicians and bureaucrats in favor of political leadership is essential to realizing “true democracy.” This document is not a declaration of war on the bureaucracy as an institution. It is a constitutional document that aspires to restore constitutional government by ending the delegation of substantial powers from the cabinet to the bureaucracy. The second and third parts of the document contain most of the aforementioned regulations, but the first part explains the proper relationship between political leaders and bureaucrats, and the relationship of both with the public.

The role of politicians sent into ministries, the cabinet declared, is to command and supervise the work of officials on behalf of the public. Bureaucrats, meanwhile, are public servants — not a word regularly used to describe Japanese officialdom — and they are to implement the policies established by the public’s representatives in government. They are to provide data to political leaders, present options for policies, and assist political leaders in the execution of their duties. The document stresses a division of labor between political leaders and officials: each should respect the other’s responsibilities.

Ultimately these new regulations provide only a framework. It will take time for these principles to reshape the relationship in reality, time for bureaucrats to accept the leadership of politicians they may view as inferior, perhaps time even for politicians to accept that they are in fact the masters of the bureaucracy. Like any revolution, the DPJ’s revolution in governance will entail a revolution in the mindsets of both politicians and bureaucrats.

But the Hatoyama government did not just outline a new framework for the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats on its first day in office. Its cabinet ministers hastened to set goals for the first weeks and months in office.

  • Regarding the 2010 budget, Fujii stated that the government would decide upon a plan for the 2010 budgeting process by the beginning of October. The government will abandon the ceiling for budgetary requests established by the Aso government and start from scratch and hasten to find ways to save money in order to budget for programs promised by the DPJ during the campaign, such as monthly child allowances. In order to free up funds for next year’s budget, the government plans to halt the Aso government’s stimulus programs. The finance ministry informed the DPJ last week that it may be possible to recover nearly 6 trillion yen in funds that have yet to be distributed. Indeed, it turns out that more than half the budgeted funds have yet to be distributed. Tango Yasutake, the administrative vice minister of finance, indicated the ministry’s support for cutting stimulus funds earlier this week, suggesting that as the Hatoyama government begins work it is already building a working relationship with the finance ministry.
  • A critical player in drafting the new budget will be the national strategy bureau, the creation of which (or, its predecessor, the national strategy office, pending revision of the cabinet law) was one of the new government’s first acts on Wednesday. Still no word, however, on who will be working under bureau chief Kan Naoto. Continuing on his theme of choice, Kan stressed that a cabinet budget committee will be created soon.
  • Okada Katsuya, the new foreign minister, also made several key policy statements Wednesday. First, he instructed the ministry to investigate the circumstances surrounding the “secret” US-Japan agreement on the introduction of US nuclear weapons into Japan, with a goal of having the report ready by the end of November. He also stressed that he will take a flexible approach to the resolution of the Futenma issue.
  • Relatedly, Kitazawa Toshimi, the new defense minister, said Wednesday that Japan will not be continuing its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean beyond the expiration of the enabling law in January.
Interestingly, as the Hatoyama government set to work, the LDP’s Nakagawa Hidenao, who during the campaign said that preventing the DPJ from taking power was necessary to save Japan, wrote at his blog that the LDP ought to cooperate with the government as the new government works to shift power from the bureaucracy to the cabinet. He said that the LDP should in particular cooperate with the government to pass the legislation establishing the national strategy bureau. It seems that Nakagawa finally realizes that the DPJ is no less serious than Nakagawa and other LDP reformists about changing Japanese governance — indeed, arguably the DPJ’s leaders are even more serious and have more comprehensive plans than anything LDP governments have offered in the way of administrative reform.

A new era in Japanese politics has truly begun.

One thought on “The first day of the new era in Japanese politics

  1. Anonymous

    While the Mandarins will have their ability to hold press conference curtailed, I see that the old boy \”kisha\” club network is also in for a bit of a revolution, The opening of official news conferences to a much wider spectrum of reporters can only be a good thing.It appears that sunlight is being shone in many places where it has previously been kept out, Hopefully it will bring about decision making that assists more than just those previous vested interests. …but I suspect they will not go easily, could be a bumpy 6 months..


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