The political methods of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his successor and current premier Yoshihide Suga can be summed up in the phrase: "all-powerful prime minister's office." But this mistakes the true aim of politicians taking the initiative, and its harmful impact is obvious. And in the current race to replace Suga as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the candidates must admit to this distortion and debate how to put it right.
In previous times, policy was said to be directed from behind the curtain by bureaucrats, with government ministries and agencies in effect deciding on measures with the cooperation of lawmakers representing the interests of specific industries. It was difficult to suss out where responsibility lay, and those government ministries and agencies pursued strictly siloed existences, with no cross-agency cooperation to advance policy.
Reconsideration of this system led to the "Heisei political reform" movement (referring to Japan's Heisei era from 1989 to 2019) to shift policy-making power to political leaders. Power and authority came to be concentrated in the prime minister's office, with the intention of putting policy decisions back into the hands of politicians.
To make this a structural reality, the Abe administration created the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs in the Cabinet Secretariat. This bureau manages the appointments of some 600 senior ministry and agency officials all under one roof.
However, as the Abe administration continued in power for year after year, this concentration of power became solidified, and its warping influence apparent to all. Puffed up by association with the prime minister's authority, his secretaries and aides began to wield tremendous power. Policy was pushed forward by figures in the PM's office, sometimes even bypassing ministers and vice-ministers.
Eventually, senior government personnel decisions came to be determined by proximity to the prime minister's office. Those who aligned with the office's views were appointed to top posts, while anyone expressing reservations would be frozen out. Bureaucrats withered under the new structure, and an overweening desire to please leeched through Japanese officialdom. The Finance Ministry's document fabrication scandal over the cut-rate sale of government land to nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen is emblematic of the trend.
This system of personnel management on a whim reached beyond the ranks of the civil service as well. Prime Minister Suga rejected six scholars nominated by the Science Council of Japan to join their ranks. Suga brushed off questions about the move, saying that there were "things that can be explained, and things that can't," and about a year later he has yet to reveal the reason for the six scholars' exclusion.
The tendency to shut out any opposing opinion is also connected to the Abe and Suga administrations' dismissive attitude toward the National Diet. For example, opposition parties are calling for an extraordinary Diet session to be convened based on the Constitution, but the Suga administration continues to refuse. In other words, the Suga administration is disrespecting the legislative branch of the government's duty and function to monitor the administrative branch.
The light of diverse opinion and free and open debate has also been virtually extinguished within the government and the ruling parties. This can be seen in Japan's coronavirus response. Accurate information about how the pandemic was unfolding in various parts of the country, though in the hands of their Diet representatives and government agencies, never made it to the prime minister's office. As a result, the administration failed to take meticulous and responsive measures to deal with the virus.
Reforms to the LDP are being debated in the party leadership race. But there are a great many points that need to be rethought, including the relationships between the political administration and the bureaucracy, between the PM's office and the ruling parties, and between the Cabinet and the National Diet. If the leadership candidates fail to take their discussions beyond purely internal party matters, there is no way they can dispel the distrust of the Japanese people.