Politico-Administrative Relationships in Japanese Context

  • Jun MatsunamiEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_3249-1


The power and influence relations between politicians and bureaucrats; which organization in the central government can control or influence over other governmental organizations; the reasons why (governing party) politicians can influence over bureaucracy.


Section: Bureaucracy

Introduction: Who Designed the Japanese Postwar Recovery?

When Japanese economy and society showed rapid recovery from the destruction of the World War II, some pointed out that it was the bureaucracy who designed the rapid economic development. In his famous MITI and the Japanese Miracle, Chalmers Ashby Johnson argued that there are five types of explanations about Japanese economic miracle. Among these five groups, Johnson wrote that he himself belonged to the school of the developmental state and argued that the bureaucracy played important role in Japanese economic miracle. He described the role and power of bureaucracy as follows:

In Japan, the developmental, strategic quality of economic policy is reflected within the government in the high position of so-called economic bureaucrats, […]. These official agencies attract the most talented graduates of the best universities in the country, and the positions of higher level officials in these ministries have been and still are the most prestigious in the society. Although it is influenced by pressure groups and political claimants, the elite bureaucracy makes most major decisions, drafts virtually all legislation, control the national budget, and is the source of all major policy innovations in the system (Johnson 1982, pp. 20–21).

It should be noted that Chalmers Ashby Johnson, who later became famous as an anti-Japan Revisionist, analyzed Japanese economic policy as a different type from Anglo-American economic policy, but another type of a rational policy for a country like postwar Japan with its context.

In fact, in the United States, there was an understanding that the bureaucracy had played very important role in the prewar Japan. That was the reason why the bureaucracy became a target of the American-led postwar reform after World War II. However, at that time, the Ministry of Interior (Home) was the ministry which the American thought the need to reform to democratize Japan, because it controlled various important administrative functions including local government, police, and civil engineering (Pempel 1987, pp. 164–167). It was Johnson who found economic bureaucracy with a positive image even that the economic bureaucrats also played an important role during the World War II in war-related production and mobilization.

Stronger Bureaucracy Hypothesis

Until the 1980s, many scholars in Japan argued that Japanese bureaucrats were stronger than politicians and the Japanese bureaucrats were more influential than the bureaucrats in many other democratic countries. They had an almost same understanding about the power of the bureaucracy with Johnson, but those Japanese professors valued the stronger bureaucracy rather negatively and described them as a possible danger against the infant Japanese democracy. The Japanese professors argued that bureaucracy could keep most of important decision-making power, just like the pre-World War II Japan. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which formed the government after its foundation in 1955, rubberstamped what the bureaucracy had prepared as cabinet bills and budgets. Many important cabinet ministerial seats such as the finance minister and the foreign minister, key positions of LDP such as party secretary were frequently occupied by ex-bureaucrats. For example, they argued that among 15 prime ministers between 1955 and 1993 (when LDP lost the general election for the first time), 7 prime ministers were ex-bureaucrats and they served more than two-third of that period. The scholars argued that these were evidences that Japanese bureaucrats could keep the power and be stronger than the politicians.

Kiyoaki Tsuji was the most important professor who systematically argued the reasons of powerful bureaucracy and criticized it as a danger against postwar Japanese democracy. According to him, there are three reasons why the postwar Japanese bureaucrats could keep their power. They were the indirect rule by the Allied powers during the Occupation (1945–1952); the conviction of the Japanese people who believed the neutrality of the bureaucrats; and weakness of other political institutions (Koh 1989, pp. 204–205). Only small numbers of bureaucrats were purged from the ministries, and those top positions like vice ministers and director generals were filled by bureaucrats who were in the ministries and worked with the purged officials during the war. Many Japanese believed that bureaucrats kept themselves distances from dirty party politics. People believed that politicians received donation and sometimes even bribes and worked for those interest groups, but clean bureaucrats protected national interests. The army and navy were disbanded and officers lost their jobs and prestige. The politicians who were supported by the war cabinet during the 1943 general election and the business leaders during the war were purged. The Japanese bureaucracy kept and expanded their power because of these facts and images.

Many believed that stronger bureaucracy had rooted in the Japanese modernization history since the nineteenth century deeply. Many graduates of prestigious universities like Tokyo University sat the higher civil service examination and only those who passed the examination, i.e., the Best and Brightest joined the government as elite young bureaucrats. They were given OJT (on the job training) by moving one position to another position, sometimes in local offices (including prefecture and city halls) and other times in ministries in Tokyo. Some of them were given chances to go abroad for policy research. They drafted all government policy documents including government bills and budget. By accumulating these experiences, the Japanese bureaucracy was stronger than politicians who lacked systematic chances to learn policies (Nakamura 2005, pp. 21–23).

Stronger Bureaucracy hypothesis had been widely accepted both by academia and by journalists and has kept some influence even now. Karel van Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power, which was published in 1989 and became a best seller at that time, argued that the bureaucracy still kept most important decision making power (van Wolferen 1989). When the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won the 2009 general election and formed the government, they wanted to exclude the bureaucrats from the political decision making process by abolishing the administrative vice minister meetings which were usually held one day before the cabinet meetings. The DPJ politicians thought that all important decisions had been decided by bureaucrats before the cabinet meeting. To regain the decision-making power, they thought that it was important to abolish the administrative vice minister meeting. The DPJ also wanted to move the decision-making process from the hierarchical ministerial meetings to the politically appointed team (minister, vice ministers, and parliamentary secretaries) in each ministry (Kushida and Lipscy 2013, pp. 32–33).

Stronger Politicians Hypothesis

In the 1980s, however, Michio Muramatsu started to challenge the stronger bureaucracy hypothesis. Based on survey to elite bureaucrats, Muramatsu pointed out that at least by the middle of the 1970s, the self-image of bureaucrats had changed from “the state man” to “the moderator between various interests.” He argued that Japanese politics-administration relation became similar to other liberal democratic countries, because Japanese bureaucrats accepted the stronger power of the politicians. According to Muramatsu, the fundamental base of politics, the legitimacy of the government, has changed by the New Constitution after the World War II. The Diet and the politicians as a whole gained the legitimacies because they were popularly elected by the people who had the sovereignty. First, the constitutional changes came, then, the changes of the understandings and behaviors of the people happened. Finally, bureaucrats’ self-image changed (Muramatsu 1981).

If Muramatsu’s argument presumed that certain years were needed to change mindset of the Japanese bureaucracy to accept the political power based on democracy, Ramseyer and Rosenbluth (1993) pointed out that the politicians’ successful monitoring made bureaucrats behaved just what politicians wanted by using the rational choice theory. They argued that by controlling promotion in the ministry and post-ministerial salaries, Japanese governing party politicians could have a relatively responsive bureaucracy. Ramseyer and Rosenbluth argued that even the bureaucrats drafted governmental bills and the bills were enacted without any changes, they were already what the principal, i.e., the governing party Diet members wanted. By monitoring bureaucrats, politicians could remove those bureaucrats from key positions who drafted bills against politicians interests, while could promote to higher positions and allow higher post-ministerial salary to the bureaucrats who prepared favorable bills.

Stronger Politician hypothesis is now widely accepted both by academia and by journalists. Newspapers and TV news used to report on what the elite bureaucrats said and what the advisory bodies of the government were arguing about the policies. Now they cover more about what the governing party internal organizations like the Policy Research Council (PRC) of the LDP argue and what influential politicians say. If there are differences between bureaucrats-preferred and politician-favored policies, now what the PRC members agreed, what senior politicians said, becomes the government policy.

Politico-Administration Relations after the 1990s

After the 1990s, politico-administration relations have changed as the surrounding environments of the government changes. Two former administrative vice ministers were arrested and were later found guilty in The Recruit scandal (1988), while another administrative vice minister was imprisoned by another bribe case. The Ministry of Finance (MOF) bureaucrats were found guilty in the misconduct in the banking industry regulatory administration, which led the reorganization of the MOF itself. Now the banking industry is regulated by the Financial Services Agency, which is independent from the MOF.

Japanese people lost their trust to the bureaucracy by these repeated scandals caused by the elite bureaucrats. After these scandals, we saw populist politicians and their parties repeatedly tried to use anti-bureaucracy emotion among the people to increase the support to them.

Another important change in the 1990s was that for the first time, the LDP lost general election in 1993. Although LDP backed to the government by a coalition with Socialists in the following year, this experience also affected politics administration relation after the 1990s. The LDP no more gave a full trust to its agent, the bureaucracy, because the bureaucracy cooperated with non-LDP coalition government. Therefore, the LDP started to discuss about bureaucracy reform in the 1990s (Nakamura 2005, pp. 30–36). In 2006, a cabinet minister was created to take charge of civil service reform, and in 2008 the national civil service reform act was enacted. In the following year, 2009, the DPJ won the general election and formed the government, but they were more critical against the bureaucracy, as already explained.

Masaru Mabuchi argued that in the recent years, the anti-bureaucracy sentiments among the people shrinked the Japanese bureaucrats. Based on the survey results, he wrote that their self-image became “the servants,” which he described as a bureaucratic syndrome (Mabuchi 2006, p. 156).

Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs

We should understand the establishment of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs (CBPA) in 2014 on this context. (CBBA’s web address is as follows: http://www.cas.go.jp/jp/gaiyou/jimu/jinjikyoku/ (In Japanese only).) A Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary (Political) was appointed as the first Director General of the CBPA and it started to control around six hundred top bureaucrats (deputy director general class and above) personnel administration. It was created by the Abe LDP-Komeito coalition government, which had experienced the oppositions (2009–2012) and another distant relation from the bureaucracy. It was widely said that by establishing CBPA, Abe LDP-Komeito coalition government obtained another tool to control the bureaucracy.

However, in 2017, the same Abe government appointed a senior bureaucrat to the Director General of CBPA after the government faced criticism from the oppositions and public opinions. Although there remains anti-bureaucracy sentiment, too much control to the bureaucracy is also unpopular.


We can say that now Japanese politicians are stronger than bureaucrats in political process just like other democratic countries. Politicians can monitor and control bureaucrats, and bureaucrats behave to materialize what the governing party politicians want. However, it is still not so clear that how much politicians are stronger than bureaucrats. There also remain some unsolved questions. How politicians should exercise their power over the bureaucracy? How a current governing party should intervene personnel administration of top elite bureaucrats?

It should be noted that Japanese bureaucracy cannot be separated from the Japanese society. Unlike the United States, and like most of European countries, Japanese labor market is, and will be, a semiclosed market. Many, if not all, bureaucrats get a job in the government when they are young and stay in the government during the most of their working ages. The recruitment of brighter younger generations and keeping their motivations high are essential for the management of the government now and the future. The development of a good politics-administration relation matters to the management of the government in the long run.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate School of International Cooperation StudiesKobe UniversityKobeJapan