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The Civil Service

In trying to discover "who's in charge here," many analysts have pointed to the elite bureaucracy as the people who really govern Japan, although they composed only a tiny fraction of the country's more than 1 million national government employees. Several hundred of the elite are employed at each national ministry or agency. Although entry into the elite through open examinations does not require a college degree, the majority of its members are alumni of Japan's most prestigious universities. The University of Tokyo Law Faculty is the single most important source of elite bureaucrats. After graduation from college and, increasingly, some graduate-level study, applicants take a series of extremely difficult higher civil service examinations: in 1988, for example, 28,833 took the tests, but only 1,814, or 6.3 percent, were successful. Of those who were successful, only 721 were actually hired. Like the scholar-officials of imperial China, successful candidates were hardy survivors of a grueling education and testing process that necessarily began in early childhood and demanded total concentration. The typical young bureaucrat, who is in most cases male, is an intelligent, hardworking, and dedicated individual. Some bureaucrats lack imagination and, perhaps, compassion for people whose way of life is different from their own.

The public's attitude toward the elite is ambivalent. The elite enjoy tremendous social prestige, but members are also resented. They live in a realm that is at least partly public yet far removed from the lives of ordinary people. Compared with politicians, they are generally viewed as honest. Involvement of top officials in scandals such as the Recruit affair, however, had, to some extent, tarnished their image.

Japan's elite bureaucrats are insulated from direct political pressure because there are very few political appointments in the civil service. Cabinet ministers are usually career politicians, but they are moved in and out of their posts quite frequently (with an average tenure of under a year), and usually have little opportunity to develop a power base within a ministry or force their civil service subordinates to adopt reforms. Below the cabinet minister is the administrative vice minister. Administrative vice ministers and their subordinates are career civil servants whose appointments are determined in accordance with an internally established principle of seniority.

In a 1975 article, political scientist Chalmers Johnson quotes a retired vice minister of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) who said that the Diet was merely "an extension of the bureaucracy." The official claimed that "the bureaucracy drafts all the laws.... All the legislature does is to use its powers of investigation, which for about half the year keeps most of the senior officials cooped up in the Diet."

In the years since this official made his proud boast, however, it became apparent that there were limits to the bureaucrats' power. The most important was the LDP's growing role in policy formation. Political scientist B.C. Koh suggested that in many cases members of the LDP policy-oriented tribes (zoku) had greater expertise in their fields than elite bureaucrats. Before the latter drafted legislation, they had to consult and follow the initiatives of the party's Policy Research Council. Many analysts consider the role of the bureaucracy in drafting legislation to be no greater than that of its counterparts in France, Germany, and other countries. Also, the decision of many retired bureaucrats to run as LDP candidates for the Diet might not reflect, as had been previously assumed, the power of the officials but rather the impatience of ambitious men who wanted to locate themselves, politically, "where the action is."

An intense rivalry among the ministries came into play whenever major policy decisions were formulated. Elite civil servants were recruited by and spent their entire careers in a single ministry. As a result, they developed a strong sectional solidarity and zealously defended their turf. Nonbureaucratic actors--the politicians and interest groups--could use this rivalry to their own advantage.

The Ministry of Finance is generally considered the most powerful and prestigious of the ministries. Its top officials are regarded as the cream of the elite. Although it was relatively unsuccessful in the 1970s when the deficit rose, the ministry was very successful in the 1980s in constraining government spending and raising taxes, including a twelve-year battle to get a consumption tax passed. The huge national debt in the early 1990s, however, may be evidence that this budget-minded body had been unsuccessful in the previous decade in curbing demands for popular policies such as health insurance, rice price supports, and the unprofitable nationwide network of the privatized Japan Railways Group. MITI frequently encountered obstacles in its early postoccupation plans to reconsolidate the economy. It has not always been successful in imposing its will on private interests, politicians, or other ministries. According to law professor John Owen Haley, writing in the late 1980s, MITI's practice of gyosei shido, or administrative guidance, often described as evidence of the bureaucracy's hidden power, was in fact a second-best alternative to "express statutory authority that would have legitimated its exercise of authority." Administrative reform policies in the 1980s imposed ceilings on civil service staff and spending that probably contributed to a deterioration of morale and working conditions.

Still another factor limiting bureaucratic power was the emergence of an affluent society. In the early postwar period, the scarcity of capital made it possible for the Ministry of Finance and MITI to exert considerable influence over the economy through control of the banking system (see The Financial System , ch. 4). To a decreasing extent, this scarcity remained until the 1980s because most major companies had high debt-equity ratios and depended on the banks for infusions of capital. Their huge profits and increasing reliance on securities markets in the late 1980s, however, meant that the Ministry of Finance had less influence. The wealth, technical sophistication, and new confidence of the companies also made it difficult for MITI to exercise administrative guidance. The ministry could not restrain aggressive and often politically controversial purchases by Japanese corporate investors in the United States, such as Mitsubishi Estate's October 1989 purchase of Rockefeller Center in New York City, which, along with the Sony Corporation's acquisition of Columbia Pictures several weeks earlier, heated up trade friction between the two countries.

The whole issue of trade friction and foreign pressure tended to politicize the bureaucracy and promote unprecedented divisiveness in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During the Structural Impediments Initiative talks held by Japan and the United States in early 1990, basic changes in Japan's economy were discussed: reforms of the distribution and pricing systems, improvement of the infrastructure, and elimination of official procedures that limited foreign participation in the economy (see Trade and Investment Relations , ch. 5). Although foreign pressure of this sort is resented by many Japanese as an intrusion on national sovereignty, it also provides an opportunity for certain ministries to make gains at the expense of others. There is hardly a bureaucratic jurisdiction in the economic sphere that is not in some sense affected.

Repeatedly, internationally minded political and bureaucratic elites found their market-opening reforms, designed to placate United States demands, sabotaged by other interests, especially agriculture. Such reactions intensified United States pressure, which in turn created a sense of crisis and a siege mentality within Japan. The "internationalization" of Japan's society in other ways also divided the bureaucratic elite. MITI, the Ministry of Labor, and the Ministry of Justice had divergent views on how to respond to the influx of unskilled, usually South Asian and Southeast Asian, laborers into the labor-starved Japanese economy. An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 of them worked illegally for small Japanese firms in the late 1980s. Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture revision of guidelines on the writing of history textbooks, ostensibly a domestic matter, aroused the indignation of Japan's Asian neighbors because the changes tended to soften accounts of wartime atrocities.

Data as of January 1994

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