Out of Japan: Bureaucracy hampered by devilish work
Monday 24 January 1994
The bureaucracy is under assault from all quarters in Japan, as the new reform-minded government is trying to wrest back some of the enormous power that civil servants have acquired for themselves in the governing of the country. But bureaucrats, with their insatiable appetite for meddling in the minutest details of citizens' private lives, are fighting back with pluck.
The saga of the rubbish bags shows how determination, obstinacy and a little fixing behind the scenes can turn apparent defeat into resounding victory in public policy. The problem starts with the several million tons of rubbish that Tokyo's population of 11 million produces every year. To make it easier to dispose of, the government has separate collections of combustible rubbish - paper, wood and vegetable materials - and non- combustible rubbish - plastics and bottles.
In September, the Tokyo metropolitan government announced that people were becoming too careless in separating the rubbish. To counter this, new transparent rubbish bags were being introduced, which would clearly reveal their contents. And householders were to sign their names on the bags, so that the authorities could chase up the non- discriminating rubbish fiends.
To their surprise, the normally docile citizenry reacted with outrage to this attempt at social control: the metropolitan government headquarters received 600 phone calls a day criticising the new regulations.
The authorities backed down, saying the name-writing was voluntary, and that the introduction of transparent bags would be delayed for several months, with the implication that it would be quietly forgotten.
But such was not the case: city hall began a new soft-sell advertising campaign for the transparent bags, spending pounds 4m of tax- payers' money in the process. And they twisted the arms of the supermarket owners to get them to stock the new bags, which are twice the price of the old black bags. By the end of the year, black bags had mysteriously disappeared from the shelves.
Suddenly mid-January became the new 'official' deadline for using the transparent bags. And although the bags do not have to be signed, people using old bags or putting the wrong rubbish into the new bags will have conspicuous 'warning' stickers attached to the gates outside their house: the ultimate sanction in a society where loss of face or public criticism is regarded with horror. Not surprisingly, the majority of Tokyo's citizens have given up their opposition, bowed their heads, and last week bared their rubbish to open view.
The fight with the Devil has not been so easy. Last July, an unnamed man in his early thirties in Akishima ward in western Tokyo registered the birth of his son. But to the horror of officials in the ward office, the name he chose for his son was 'Akuma', which means devil in Japanese. The municipal government issued an order to the father to change his son's name, but the father has refused.
Much to the dismay of the bureaucrats who are not used to having their power challenged, they do not appear to have any legal grounds to stand on. Even the Minister of Justice conceded that officials had 'turned the Compendium of Laws inside out' to find a weapon to use against 'the Devil', but had failed. The Family Registration Law only stipulates that parents must choose written characters which are in common use when naming their children, and both 'aku' and 'ma' are on the recommended list.
Precedents for dealing with such a dilemma have been searched for overseas, but the results have been discouraging. Researchers have found that nothing was done to change the name of Ima Hogg, a social leader in Houston, Texas. In Communist Russia children were christened 'Tractor' and 'Electrification', while a Filippino family named their twins 'Armalite' and 'Kalashnikov'.
It looks as if the young Akuma will go through life with his demonic first name, which his father says will make people less likely to forget him.
But just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does officialdom abhor an area of human activity that it cannot regulate. 'For personal names, we need to examine creating standards and guidelines with some legal basis,' said the Home Affairs Minister, Kanju Sato. And maybe they will devise censorious stickers for the postboxes of those parents who dare to give their children unorthodox names.
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