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Two “unconventional” bureaucrats at Abe’s Kantei wield power in economic, trade policies

  • June 1, 2018
  • , pp. 56-57
  • JMH Translation

Shinzo Abe has a different ideology from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) mainstream. He prioritizes a policymaking process dominated by the Kantei rather than adhering to the traditional division of labor among the Kantei, the ruling parties, and Kasumigaseki. Contrary to expectations in political circles, he has been able to establish a stable long-term administration. At the same time, this has produced some unconventional bureaucrats who are able to wield power as staff members who report directly to the prime minister even though they have failed to rise in their own ministries. Here we introduce two typical examples.


While Takaya Imai, Abe’s secretary and closest confidant, is often in the limelight, Hiroaki Niihara is the one who actually moves policies forward, formulates schedules, and prepares Abe’s big publicity events in accordance with orders from Imai and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.


Niihara was detailed to the Kantei from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and is currently a director general for policy in the Cabinet Office. He has been very active in policymaking. A political affairs officer at a major bank indicates that “Niihara has been responsible for the major economic policies, such as the dynamic engagement of all citizens, work-style reform, and 100-year life society.” He enjoys Abe’s favor as a faithful subordinate.


Although the Abe administration is sometimes referred to as the “METI administration,” Niihara was actually never considered an ace in his ministry. After graduating from the Faculty of Economics of the University of Tokyo, Niihara joined METI’s predecessor, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, in 1984. He joined the Kantei as one of the prime minister’s secretaries under the Naoto Kan administration in 2010, but was released in January 2011 apparently “on account of his personality and ability because he often clashed with the media even though he was responsible for public affairs.”


His METI colleagues are unanimous in their opinion that he is “an eccentric with unusual abilities.” After returning from the Kantei, he became chief of the New and Renewable Energy Division of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, where he came into the limelight after he initiated the feed-in tariff system for renewable energy. However, this system, which started in 2012, soon became a loss-making project.


Niihara was given refuge for a while at the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare after this policy debacle, and he eventually ended up in the Cabinet Office, suddenly finding himself playing an active role in the Abe administration. Ironically, Niihara’s career history made Abe think he is somebody who does not prioritize his ministry’s interests over loyalty to the prime minister.


With the bills related to work-style reform he has been working on since 2016 expected to be enacted in the current Diet session, Niihara will now move on to work on major measures to be taken to prevent an economic recession after the consumption tax increase.


Niihara likes to do everything himself. A METI official observes, “Not only does he refuse to share information inside Kasumigaseki, he even treats officials detailed to the Kantei coldly, thereby undermining relations between the Kantei and METI.”


Rumor has it that Niihara will be promoted to the head of METI’s Economic and Industrial Policy Bureau, a position that may land him the position of administrative vice minister in the future.


The other unconventional bureaucrat is Kazuhisa Shibuya, policy coordinator at the Cabinet Office for the government’s TPP headquarters, the new key person in the limelight for trade diplomacy. Both the Foreign Ministry and METI are very wary of Shibuya with regard to the new Japan-U.S. trade framework, for fear that he “might intend to wield power by creating a cross-ministerial trade body reporting directly to the Kantei,” according to a diplomatic source.


Shibuya graduated from Tokyo University’s Faculty of Law and joined the now-defunct Construction Ministry (currently the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism [MLIT]) in 1983. He served as public affairs division chief in the Minister’s Secretariat and policy division chief under the construction policy bureau. Surprisingly, he specialized in disaster prevention. An MLIT watcher recalls that at that time, “he frequently met with private sector activists of NPOs and other groups, spending his own pocket money.” He is huge and looks funny when he walks, but his hobby is aerobics. An economic reporter observers, “He is one of the rare elite bureaucrats who is very open and approachable. Many Diet members and reporters like him. He has been renowned for his expertise in handling people and manipulating the media since the time he was public affairs division chief.”


However, his aspiration to become the MLIT’s administrative vice minister turned out to be unachievable at an early stage on account of internal politics in the ministry, so his ambition shifted to vindicating himself by excelling as a bureaucrat in the Kantei. After becoming a councilor in the Cabinet Office in 2012, he exhibited extraordinary skills in utilizing private sector funds to promote investment in public works. From there, he moved on to be in charge of the TPP, thus opening up bright prospects for his career. During the TPP negotiations, he briefed the Diet members and took charge of behind-the-scenes consultations. He drank wine with reporters every night at his office in the Cabinet Office, thus gaining more fans.


However, ever since Shibuya began to hold real power, rumors have been spreading about him being “big-headed.” His remarkable skill at manipulating the media has created the impression of a high-handed bureaucrat who “treats media outlets selectively and applies strong pressure on unfavorable reporting.” In his dealings with the Diet, certain officials involved in Diet affairs are furious that “the amateurish Shibuya trying to do everything by himself is creating nothing but confusion.” Quite a few Foreign Ministry bureaucrats openly showed that they were put off when Shibuya’s son joined the ministry’s Economic Affairs Bureau.


While Shibuya had been telling his aides after he left the MLIT, “If I work hard here, I will be able to return to the MLIT to take up a bureau chief job,” his stint in the Cabinet Office has been extended for several years now because the TPP has gone adrift.


While Abe is said to have openly asked the various ministries to treat bureaucrats who have served him “generously” [after they return to the ministries], where will this pair of unconventional bureaucrats who have worked to support the administration eventually end up? (Abridged)

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