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Kantei controls bureaucrats by “grading” their performance

  • December 2, 2016
  • , Yomiuri , p. 4
  • JMH Translation

One of the innovations of the Abe cabinet is the establishment of Kantei’s (Prime Minister’s Official Residence) direct control of the bureau chief class officials of the government ministries.


After a car driven by a man in his 80s crashed into a group of school children on their way to school, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe created a working group of bureau chiefs on ways to prevent similar incidents on Nov. 24.


At the group’s first meeting, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Policy Bureau Director General Kozo Fujita suggested the improvement of public transportation services and the use of automatic brakes.


This meeting was also attended by National Police Agency Traffic Bureau Director General Takeshi Inoue; Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Deputy Director General Noriyuki Mita; Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Local Administration Bureau Deputy Director General Tadashi Tokisawa; and other senior ministry officials, who came up with various ideas on community development and new auto technology. The team is aiming to draw up new policies by next June.


A similar working group was also created after the Brexit vote. The Abe cabinet has adopted the method of assembling senior officials from the ministries whenever a policy issue emerges. At present, there are a number of such cross-ministry teams under the Kantei which are being asked to formulate policies that the public can support.


The point is that most officials gathered at the Kantei are at the bureau chief rank. Their meetings have come to resemble a screening process for bureau chiefs. Those able to produce results will be able to rise to the position of vice minister.


Promotion to the job of vice minister used to follow a unique bureaucratic logic, with an official gaining certain “points” as he climbed the career ladder from division chief to deputy director general to director general of a bureau, culminating in the position of vice minister based on the “points” he had gained. However, things have changed completely since the start of the Abe cabinet.


One bureaucrat from an economic ministry said, “The meetings at the Kantei are not just meetings; they have a profound impact on our lives.” Issues like traffic accidents by the elderly or Brexit could mean the end of a bureaucrat’s career.


Since the beginning of the second Abe cabinet in December 2012, Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga have adhered to the policy of using the bureaucracy by controlling personnel appointments. The Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs was created in May 2014 for unified management of senior ministry officials and this has become their source of power.


During the appointment of vice ministers last June, the promotion of Masaaki Okuhara to vice minister of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries raised many eyebrows. He did not follow the usual career track and he is of the same seniority as his predecessor, so this was regarded as a Kantei-led “upset.”


Vice ministers are increasingly becoming political appointees, so they are now dubbed “parliamentary vice ministers of the bureaucracy.” A “parliamentary vice minister” is the third ranking political appointee after the minister and state minister.


Division chiefs who were in their 40s when the Abe cabinet started in 2012 will be of the right age to become vice ministers if the Abe administration continues for nine years until 2021. A mid-ranking METI official said, “If you want to become a vice minister, you will have to fall in step with the Kantei.”


Of course there is also criticism of the Kantei’s stronger control over the bureaucrats. Democratic Party House of Representatives member Takashi Takai stated at the Committee on the Cabinet on Oct. 21: “The bureaucrats work in fear of the Abe administration’s appointment decisions. They are not able to voice their opinions. There will be an increase of conformists.”


Suga responded by saying, “I make my decisions after listening objectively to a wide range of opinions, including those from the division chiefs.”


While central control of appointments has the advantage of eliciting interesting policies, going too far may result in a sense of powerlessness on the part of the bureaucrats and weaken their organizational structure. How well the Cabinet Personnel Affairs Bureau is utilized will be decisive in determining the longevity of the administration. (Slightly abridged)

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