(note: an abbreviated version of this article has been published in the diplomat)
kasumigaseki vs nagatacho – synonymous with the power struggle between japan’s powerful bureaucracy and its political centre. for decades, the fight has been rather balanced, but just as elsewhere, power has increasingly shifted to the political centre. under prime minister shinzo abe, this development has reached new heights. no prime minister before him has held a tighter rein over japan’s once so mighty bureaucracy. and this development will outlast his premiership.
after over half a century of almost unbroken ldp (liberal democratic party) rule, the democratic party (dpj) won a landslide victory in 2009 to rallying cries of breaking the bureaucracy’s power and handing it to elected representatives. in its most headline-grabbing publicity stunt, the dpj organised show trial-like hearings of bureaucrats summoned to defend their spending programs to publicise the often perverse outgrows of the marriage of pork and bureaucracy flourishing under the ldp’s long rule (see, for instance, michael cucek’s take on these hearings on shisaku: link). they failed.
the most severe challenge to kasumigaseki, however, never came from the brief interlude of dpj rule (which often was chaotic precisely because they refused to rely on the expertise of bureaucrats), but from the abe government and the unprecedented strength of the prime minister. four factors are chiefly responsible for this shift: two of them are abe’s doing, while two more have been longer in the making, but also driven to new heights under abe.
first, abe’s stable premiership has halted the revolving door for japan’s prime ministers for now that was spinning since koizumi left (there were five between 2006 and 2012). tomomi inada, a key figure in the ldp and herself seen as a future candidate for the top post, has recently suggested that abe might still be in power in 2019 – this matters, since the most likely challenge to abe’s rule will come from within the ruling party, rather than the lacklustre opposition. by extension, this is not only true of the prime minister, but also for other key personnel: this july yoshihide suga will become the longest serving chief cabinet secretary (link). this helps him in his role, which is to coordinate and keep in line the various ministries. cabinet positions also no longer shift every other year, as has long been the case. the long tenures of labour minister yasuhisa shiozaki or finance minister taro aso are a case in point. bureaucrats can no longer just sit back and hope that politicians they dislike will be gone in a year, followed by the next with a new set of priorities they can appear to implement while to a large extent pursuing their own policy preferences.
stronger personal influence via longer tenure is not the only means by which abe and suga are asserting their control over kasumigaseki. in 2014, abe installed a cabinet bureau of personnel affairs. this office that grants him unprecedented control over more than 600 bureaucratic appointments, tripling the previous number. more importantly, he is making full use of it. prior to this, ministries handled promotions mostly internally, rubberstamped by their political leadership. no longer; far beyond a few high profile appointments, such as of abe’s chum ichiro komatsu as head of the legal affairs bureau (itself an unprecedented move), or of staunch conservatives to the nhk (japan’s public broadcaster) board, the administration is getting involved on a much more granular level. in an off-the-record conversation with plotted//grundriss, a senior diplomat recounted the story in the foreign ministry of a prospective china bureau appointment being rejected because of concerns by the abe administration about the candidate being too pro-china. in other private conversations, dozens more senior bureaucrats stressed the long shadow of the personnel bureau down to the director general level or at times even further. for bureaucrats desiring to be promoted to senior positions not carefully treading the government line has become career threatening.
the third factor is the increased number of political appointments to the upper echelons inside the ministries – and interference in political bodies overseeing them. this development has begun before abe came to power. as one senior official in the agriculture ministry (maff) remarked, political oversight over ministries is nowadays much tighter than it was 15 or 20 years ago: where once the only political representatives were the minister and his deputy, now there are seven political appointees (five, if one does not count the two politicised vice minister posts, the highest post for ministry bureaucrats). abe and suga, however, are making the most of these appointments and strategically use staffing to bring ministries in line.
hisao harihara, an internationalist and proponent of agricultural reform, against all odds (and despite much hatred for him from inside maff), became vice minister for international affairs at maff. his appointment is part of suga’s and abe’s strategy to diminish maff’s power to oppose their push for a successful tpp negotiation. similarly, for the first time, with ken saito, a former economy ministry (meti) official became head of the ldp’s agricultural policy grouping (norin bukai) that is key in overseeing maff. as the sankei newspaper wrote, part of this was because internal candidates for this difficult post were few (link), particularly during tpp and agriculture reform times, but it also has suga’s fingerprints all over it and speaks to the strong involvement of abe and suga in all key personnel decisions. after all, the ruling party’s powerful agricultural chapter led by former tpp opponent nishikawa (whom abe co-opted with a cabinet post of maff minister), and a norin bukai led by a politician socialised in meti, means that those positions that once were meant to form the lynchpin of maff’s and farmers’ opposition to tpp now were much less of a threat to his coordinating mandate.
the fourth mechanism is the concentration of policy-making expertise in the prime minister’s office (kantei). this development is not unprecedented, either, but the degree to which it is happening is. koizumi for instance used a powerful council for economic and fiscal policy to directly advise him on his key policies (although mostly to bypass his own party machinery, rather than the ministries). under abe, this has reached new heights: besides reviving koizumi’s cefp, he installed four more advisory councils advising him on his growth strategy, plus a number of individual advisers for various other topics (link). this is shifting much of the core competence and lever of influence of kasumigaseki – policy formulation and expertise – from the ministerial deliberative councils (shingikai) to the kantei. under abe, rather than the famous adage of the rule of the ‘iron triangle’ (ldp + big biz + kasumigaseki), it is the iron duality of kantei + big biz + handpicked advisors setting the policy direction (one should note, however, that the latter still includes several influencers from meti, which has guarded its influence well).
the first of these four factors (stability and longer tenure) could be gone as suddenly as it appeared. the other three, however, are more structural in nature and will outlive abe’s tenure. the strengthening of the kantei (and of the chief cabinet secretariat) has been a powerful longer term trend in japanese politics. pushed by abe and suga with unprecedented focus and determination it has now reached new heights. nagatacho 1: kasumigaseki 0.