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The Asian side of the world

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Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The Japanese senior civil service or the power of the shadows

Pierre-François Souyri

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1November 2010

2In September 2009, the Democratic Party won the general elections. For the first time in over half a century, the Conservatives had lost their power in both houses and became the Opposition party. Some thus thought it appropriate to announce to the world that a significant historical event had taken place in Japan that could be compared to, in some respects, the Renovation in 1868.

3More than a year has passed since the Democrats’ victory and Japanese politics has not drastically changed. Worse still, the state is clearly not committed to democratising institutions as one might have expected after such a long-awaited change, but rather a move towards authoritarianism, which does not bode well for civil liberties and democracy.

4So what has happened since autumn 2009? Not much, one might be tempted to say, in terms of the Democrats’ promises. The new party in power wanted to introduce fairer redistribution of fiscal resources, by promoting the growth of domestic demand and finding measures to increase the birth rate. Their programme challenged neo-liberal policies and a return to revised Keynesian policies. Furthermore, the Democrats had promised to renegotiate the status of the Okinawa base with the U. S. and, especially, to put an end to the underhand deals between government officials and major businesses by abolishing the practice known as amakudari, which translates literally to “descent from heaven” (pantouflage in French [Translator’s note: a practice whereby high-level French civil servants are subsequently employed by a private company. In American English, this can be translated as “the revolving doors”.]).

5After a year with the Democrats in power, nothing concrete has been done to achieve any of this. Furthermore, the members of the Democratic Party who were genuinely determined to change things have been simply ousted. Why and how?

6To understand the current situation, we have study the past. We know the role and prestige that officials and administrators have enjoyed since ancient times in organising the country and their importance even in the feudal Edo period. Confucianism, to which leaders were attached in the past, is nothing more than the ideological justification of bureaucratic elites. At the beginning of the twentieth century, officials serving the country were once again the elite from the Imperial University. The best students naturally looked to the state, which guaranteed them respect, the feeling of being influential and significant rewards. Bureaucracy, leaving policies with only a small role to play in important decisions, largely controlled the state. As the university trained them, officials believed that they knew more of the state than politicians were obsessed with being re-elected.

7From the 1930s onwards the role that senior government officials from the army played in the State structure was known. After their victory, the United States began a political purge, breaking up the military, but often targeting the wrong people, attacking politicians instead of senior civil servants. Very few of these were actually victims of the purge, unlike the politicians. A study of the careers of senior government officials during the period between 1935 and 1955 shows peculiar promotions, as if political events had glossed over them. The most talented senior officials were often sent to Japanese colonies. When they returned to Japan after the war, they were often behind the decisions made at the Ministries of Finance, Budget and Industry, which enabled the country to grow from strength to strength in the 1960s.

8Their great victory, so to speak, is to have succeeded in running the country with politicians from the Liberal Democratic Party in an almost perfect and discrete harmony. Conservative leaders, often coming from the bureaucracy themselves, ensured the stability of the regime and, subsequently, the careers. It was therefore not in the interest of senior civil servants to criticise a system that allowed them to continue. The partnership worked so well that the country enjoyed an economic boom that some at the time believed to be never ending. Nevertheless, the first downfall of the bureaucracy was Kakuei Tanaka’s coming into power in the early 1970s. Uncontrollable by nature and not the usual University of Tokyo type, this ruffled the feathers of the senior officials who had grown comfortable with their stable income. They refused to forgive him and we can safely say that the Lockheed scandal that ended Tanaka’s political career was triggered by leaks from within the State administration. Following this case, new regulations were implemented to increase the powers of a financial police investigation led by public prosecutors, the kensatsu, to oust corrupt politicians from the administration to the great satisfaction of the public. A “clean” operation against politicians was launched.

9However, the problem was that the police, under the supervision of the prosecutors, had considerable investigative power. They could decide to investigate without having to justify themselves, basing their examination on documents whose source they were not obliged to disclose, and may even launch further investigations if the first proved to be unsuccessful. As long as the Conservatives were in power and the agreement between them and senior officials continued, the kensatsu would remain moderate in its attacks against politicians. Nevertheless investigations initiated by prosecutors still lead to the fall of certain politicians. Furthermore, investigations most often targeted their secretaries or families, and resulted in them being discredited.

10The Democrats’ victory, however, in 2009 echoed the beginning of a period of significant unrest in the state’s administration. Ichirô Ozawa, a former member of the Tanaka faction, who moved from the Conservatives to the Democrats and was the actual architect of the electoral victory of the Democratic Party, made no secret of his intentions to tighten the reins on senior officials. For Ozawa, politics must take precedence over bureaucracy, and must comply with guidelines, and not vice versa. As a result, Ozawa was subjected to senseless bashing by the press and mainstream media and was deemed corrupt, dangerous and guilty before even being tried. Several investigations on the money that Ozawa received were launched, forcing Ozawa to resign as Prime Minister with Hatoyama as his successor. In autumn 2009, Ozawa was accused of manipulating the new Prime Minister, who also found himself faced with a financial scandal over his campaign accounts, following an investigation launched by a prosecutor.

11During summer 2010, the campaign caused fierce competition within the Democratic Party for leadership, and thus the position of Prime Minister, between Naoto Kan and Ichirô Ozawa, who continues to be portrayed across the board as a guilty and corrupt politician. Kan won the party’s internal elections in September and on 4th of October 2010, Ozawa who had already been the subject of several unsuccessful investigations by the kensatsu, was charged this time, meaning that he will probably be forced to abandon his position as Member of Parliament. Ozawa’s career is currently seriously damaged.

12This case highlights an obvious problem within the Japanese government. How and why can certain prosecutors initiate investigations against individuals without any restrictions, be they politicians suspected of corruption, conduct searches without hesitation and revive investigations when the first did not provide convincing evidence? Why do the press and media broadcast accusations that leak from the Ministry of Justice without ever attempting to initiate counter-investigations and doing their job as an investigative reporter properly?

13Sickened by the servility of major media heads towards officials and prosecutors, an increasing number of journalists are leaving state-controlled media for the alternative on the internet through various blogs and videos. A counter-power is thus slowly gaining force, denouncing the mass gomi (pun on mass media and mass bins) and striking out against the fascist kensatsu. A protest against the prosecutors’ authority was held on 24th of October, organised over the internet, and other similar events are planned. It is thought that the movement, “put a stop to the state prosecutors”, condemning the risk of dictatorship will spread despite an official boycott.

14Just when the Kan government is adding insult to injury in terms of its relations with China and taking the same position as American neo-conservatives (while Ozawa wanted to restore the balance in relations between Beijing and Tokyo), when certain Democrat ministers are raising the possibility of transforming its forces into an actual army and economic recovery through the redeployment of an export-oriented military industry, it is not surprising that the United States has openly shown their support for Kan against his rival. At a time when the sound of nationalist boots is resurfacing in the Far East with the tense relations between China and its neighbours and the unpredictable actions of the North Korean regime, it is somewhat urgent that Japanese citizens voice their opinion once again to demonstrate their commitment to civil liberties, freedom of expression and a policy that will guarantee peace in the region.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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