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Editorial: Japan’s new PM Suga must address warped political-bureaucratic ties

The approach by the previous administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to have the prime minister’s office lead Japan’s politics accelerated decision-making processes on policies. But it also had the negative effect of distorting the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats.


Under the Abe administration, secretaries and special advisors to the then prime minister, also knowns as “bureaucrats of the prime minister’s office,” triumphed under the cloak of Abe’s authority. They ordered government ministries and agencies around beyond the original scope of their authority, and made decisions on policies in disregard of ministers or top bureaucrats.


One such bureaucrat spoke of “the prime minister’s will” in a favoritism scandal involving Abe, and a former administrative vice minister of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology accused a “bureaucrat of the prime minister’s office” of pressuring the education ministry’s top bureaucrat to promptly handle an application by a university to open a new veterinary school in a national strategic special zone.


In diplomacy, there were incidents where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ policy of emphasizing the consistency of strategies was overturned by bureaucrats of the prime minister’s office. A prime example of this was Japan’s diplomatic policies regarding Russia, including negotiations over the disputed Northern Territories off Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.


When assuming office, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga shuffled around the bureaucrats working for the prime minister’s office to some extent but maintained the system itself. If he intends to continue treating them preferentially, the relationship could become further distorted.


Suga stated during the presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to replace Abe that senior bureaucrats who object to the direction of government policies “will get transferred.” He also said his administration would not reexamine the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, which has centralized power when it comes to managing some 600 elite bureaucrats’ transfers and promotions.


Under such a system, those who comply with the prime minister’s office get favorable treatment, while critics are shunned away. Threatening to use power for appointments creates a sense of fear among bureaucrats, making them cower and surmise the intentions of those at the prime minister’s office to an excessive degree. This structure is surely the cause of the favoritism scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution, and Japan’s public document crises, where official records were doctored or discarded in an apparent attempt to prevent fact-finding.


In response to the two cronyism scandals extending to the prime minister himself, the Abe administration revised guidelines on the management of public records. Yet later, when suspicions arose that Abe had used an annual cherry blossom-viewing party for personal gain, his administration discarded lists of guests invited to the events using loopholes in the guidelines.


Furthermore, the Abe administration allowed for meetings over coronavirus countermeasures to go undocumented, and as a result there remain no detailed minutes of such important meetings, which would have shown who said what. At the time, Suga was at the nerve center of the Abe administration as chief Cabinet secretary, the government’s top spokesperson.


Those involved in the executive branch of the government are primarily responsible for precisely recording policymaking and decision-making processes and are accountable to the people.


The new administration needs to rectify the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats and reexamine the stance that the previous government took, under which official records were neglected. Prime Minister Suga should use the launch of his government as an opportunity to work on these issues.

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