Leading Article: A new era for Japan's civil servants

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The Independent Online
WHEN he was Governor of a countryside prefecture, Japan's new Prime Minister used to complain that he needed approval from Tokyo civil servants even to move a bus-stop. Now that he is back in the capital and head of a new coalition government, Morihiro Hosokawa is fast discovering that the bureaucracy does not interfere only in little things.

On Monday, the coalition's new Finance Minister was forced by his advisers to withdraw an undertaking not to raise taxes on consumer goods. Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry's budget bureau put out the word to other ministries that, no matter what the new coalition may say, there would be no sharp spending increases on the welfare state and foreign aid without cuts elsewhere. The increase overall, said the bureau, would be capped at 3 per cent.

The Japanese bureaucracy has an enviable reputation. While recruitment has become harder in the civil services of other industrial countries, the ministries in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district attract the brightest and best graduates - despite low pay and miserable working conditions. The Finance Ministry and the Bank of Japan have managed the economy with consummate skill since the Second World War; other ministries have intervened in the private sector more wisely than their counterparts abroad.

Yet the system is by no means perfect. There are turf battles between ministries. There is too much detailed regulation: the Education Ministry, for instance, censors textbooks line by line, while the Health Ministry sets both the price of entrance tickets to public baths and the temperature of the water. More importantly, the civil service's links with politics and big business are unhealthily close. Some high-flying officials switch over to politics in mid-career; others parachute down on retirement to the boards of Japan's great manufacturing companies. The phrase for this is amakudari, or descent from heaven; but it is no less dirty than the 'revolving door' of Washington's lobbyists.

Since the new coalition is the first non- Liberal Democratic Party government that most civil servants have ever served, it is understandable that they should be wary of their new masters. After all, the LDP may be back in power a year from now, and ready to punish all those who co- operated too closely with the former opposition. But an important test will come when the civil service is asked to work out the details of how to reform the country's outdated electoral system. Political reform will be hard enough to carry off, since politicians in government and opposition stand to lose from it. If the civil service drags its feet, too, it will be doomed.

Yet it would be unwise for Japan's civil servants to give Japanese electors the impression that the bureaucracy can render nugatory what happened last month. If they feel they have wasted their time in casting votes for change, the public will merely withdraw further from what is already a distant and overcentralised political system. That is why Japanese civil servants need to set to work on reform and decentralisation with enthusiasm. The project may be hazardous; but avoiding it will harm both the reputation of the civil service itself and the nation in whose interests it claims to act.