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Abe administration's lack of transparency shows need for review

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from right, and Tomomi Inada, second from left, then minister in charge of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, set up a signboard of the newly launched bureau in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward in this May 30, 2014 file photo. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aspires to clinch his third consecutive victory in the upcoming Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election, he is keenly aware of the need to dispel suspicions surrounding the favoritism scandals involving two western Japan-based school operators, Moritomo Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution.

This is why he often recites a phrase at the outset of many of his speeches that goes like, "I would like to carefully and humbly manage the administration while rectifying what must be rectified." This was the case at a meeting in the city of Niigata in northern Japan on Sept. 5.

The phrase is aimed at expressing his remorse over the document tampering scandal at the Ministry of Finance involving the heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen, and the controversy over the opening of a new veterinary school in a national strategic special zone by Kake Educational Institution, headed by a longtime confidant of Abe.

In August last year, Abe told his aides as he made up his mind to dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap general election, "I want to put an end to the Moritomo and Kake issues. Even if we fail to maintain a two-thirds majority in the lower house, it'll be fine if the ruling coalition can win the majority of seats in the chamber."

Although the LDP scored a sweeping victory in the election, opposition parties continued to grill Abe in the ordinary Diet session over the cronyism scandals. In a nationwide opinion poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun earlier this month, 72 percent of respondents said they were "unconvinced" by the explanations given by Abe and his government over the Moritomo and Kake scandals. Furthermore, 63 percent of respondents said the prime minister held responsibility for the problems, indicating the public's deep-rooted distrust in him.

Nevertheless, the prime minister's office has dismissed such criticism, saying there was "no evidence" that indicated Abe's involvement in the two scandals, and refused to examine the cause of the cronyism allegations. In addition, bureaucrats at ministries and agencies concerned, who surmised the intentions of the prime minister's office, repeatedly provided insincere statements in the Diet, further obscuring the truth behind the allegations.

After returning to power in December 2012, Prime Minister Abe scrambled to centralize government power, eliminating the vertically divided administrative functions at ministries and agencies and bolstering the capacity of the prime minister's office in order to speed up policy-making decisions. At the core of this new system are figures including executive secretaries to the prime minister, deputy chief Cabinet secretaries, and special advisers to the prime minister. These aides to Abe, who have supported him over the past five years and eight months, are called "bureaucrats at the prime minister's office." Bureaucrats at other ministries and agencies carefully respond to the instructions and inquiries given by the PM office bureaucrats, thinking that "they might be the intention of the prime minister," according to a senior official of a government body.

Under the new scheme, councils are set up at the Cabinet Secretariat or the Cabinet Office to discuss policy measures that Abe attaches particular weight to, and bureaucrats at the prime minister's office draw up policy measures and then announce them even before sufficient negotiations have been made with related ministries and agencies. Professor Izuru Makihara at the University of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology points out, "The policy-making process has become of a closed nature, and the prime minister's office bosses people around saying, 'Do it,' without examinations from multifaceted perspectives."

The tendency among bureaucrats to surmise the intentions of the prime minister and his office can be attributed in part to the launch of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs in 2014, which has allowed the prime minister's office to handle the personnel matters of roughly 600 senior bureaucrats of central government ministries and agencies. A retired administrative vice minister blasted the measure, saying, "As the prime minister's office fully exercised its authority over personnel affairs, bureaucrats who are only mindful of their own promotions are vying for higher posts by showing excessive consideration to the prime minister's office."

An excellent example of such reward appointments is Nobuhisa Sagawa being promoted to director-general of the National Tax Agency after defending the prime minister's office through his Diet statements during question and answer sessions over the Moritomo Gakuen scandal when he was heading the Financial Bureau of the Ministry of Finance, which was responsible for the controversial land sale to the school operator.

Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who has also thrown his hat in the ring for the party presidential race, told a press conference on Aug. 27 that he would review the management policy for the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, promising to make the policy promotion process led by the prime minister's office more transparent if he became party head. However, he stopped short of elaborating on his measures, failing to breathe substance into his campaign slogan of "honest and fair" politics that he laid out to strike a difference between him and Abe.

The move to shift the policy-making process led by bureaucrats to one led by politicians began in Japan during the 1990s, modeled after Britain's parliamentary Cabinet system. The ultimate ideal model is for the prime minister's office to be given stronger authority to facilitate the processes in achieving results, while political parties maintain a sense of tension for a potential change of government under the two-party system. Yet such a platform has been faltering of late as the LDP has maintained its predominance in the Diet under the Abe administration. It is about time to review the distance between bureaucrats and politicians.

(Japanese original by Shinichiro Nishida, Political News Department)

(This is the fourth and final article in a series)

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