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There is no language in the world in which the word "bureaucrat" means something good. In Japanese the word kanryo has exceedingly unpleasant overtones. It suggests pettiness, self-importance, narrowness, and formalism-attributes, in the Confucian phrase, of a "small man." Japanese historians tend to view the modern Japanese bureaucrat as the willing tool of all of the villains of history from the absolutist leaders of the early Meiji to the undemocratic party leaders of the Taisho, the militarists of the thirties, and the conservative party politicians of today. In the historical literature perhaps the only figure that rivals the bureaucrat as a subject of opprobrium is the "parasitic landlord." Some critics even suggest that the bureaucracy has dominated policy formation, bringing to heel the elected political leaders who are nominally in charge of policy.
One may object that both "bureaucrat" (kanryo) and "official" (yakunin) are pejorative terms. Kanri, which also may be rendered as "official," sounds much better. It has a dignified ring; it suggests capability, steadfastness of purpose, and trustworthiness. It was the term used in the Meiji constitution to speak of "the officials of the emperor." But it is not the term that enters the mind of the average Japanese when he thinks of Japanese officialdom.
Even more critical of bureaucracy than the writings of postwar historians is a second large literature written by ex-bureaucrats and newspaper reporters to expose the foibles, failings, formalism, and frustrations of bureaucratic life in Japan. This genre of books elucidates what is wrong with Japanese bureaucracy. It gives firsthand illustrations of the dysfunctions that can be found in government administration. If Japanese bureaucracy did not work, this literature would tell why.
During the past few years I have been studying early Meiji government and bureaucracy. In connection with this study, hoping in some measure to triangulate back from the present, I have read most of this exposé literature, and I have also spent several months visiting Japanese government offices-at the local, prefectural, and national levels-and talking with government officials. This paper is an attempt to reconcile what I have read with what I have seen and heard.
I would stress in advance that I am not out to whitewash Japanese bureaucracy. It does have dysfunctions. Japanese officials all agree that they exist. There is some truth in the claim by Japanese scholars that Westerners, seeking to explain Japan's "economic miracle," sometimes adopt an overly rosy view of the Japanese ability to cooperate and work harmoniously for commonly held goals. Even so, in comparison with most bureaucracies in the world, Japanese bureaucracy does get things done. The question must be posed: given its dysfunctions, why does it work as well as it does?
An Elite Bureaucracy
Weber argued for the legal character of bureaucracy. His characterization fits Japan rather well. Whether in the Ministry of Labor or the Ministry of Finance, the top career bureaucrats tend to be law school graduates. Their life as officials is governed by regulations and ordinances, which they observe and obey. Their work consists of drafting laws, planning the projects that will be embodied in bills, and enforcing laws already passed.
But many other matters also affect how bureaucracy functions. One is the prestige that the official enjoys in his society and the way it helps or hinders recruitment. In the Tokugawa era (1600-1868) officials were ranking samurai, the elite within the military aristocracy. After the Restoration, government officials were, perhaps more than the army, the legitimate heirs of the samurai. For a time after the Restoration even local post-office officials wore swords. In 1876 one government leader wrote: "Carefully observing today's situation, the peasants, the merchants, the samurai, all under heaven are dissatisfied... only officials are pleased with their lot." There was ample reason for their satisfaction: they were the officials of the emperor and partook of his glory. Higher officials, from a slightly later period, had fancy uniforms with shiny buttons, braids, and swords to wear on ceremonial occasions. Their pay was high. Even a lower official (hanninkan), Ukai Nobushige has stated, could afford to visit geisha. It was not until the 1920s that the salaries of company managers pulled ahead of those of government officials at the same educational level.
After World War II the pay of bureaucrats declined relative to other sectors of society. They were redefined in the 1947 constitution as "servants of the people" (kokumin no koboku). They were stripped of their symbolic perquisites. Decorations, for example, were abolished for a time. And, reflecting the decline in their livelihood and morale, incidents of corruption or bribery, exceedingly rare before the war, began to be reported. Yet many of the best graduates of the Law Faculty of Tokyo University continued to enter the bureaucracy. Perhaps only in France and Germany did officials have a comparable sense of themselves as an academic elite.
Imai Kazuo, a former bureau chief in the Ministry of Finance, recounts an occasion when a student, armed with a letter of introduction, called on a bureau chief in a central ministry in the hope of obtaining a job. He was asked about his university record and then dismissed with: "You haven't got a chance with only that number of As. I had seventeen. The famous Professor So-and-so at the university had only fifteen, a considerably poorer record than mine." The student left in chagrin. When first told of this conversation, Imai remarked on how true to life it was. The same consciousness is reflected in the more recent words of a ten-year MITI bureaucrat who asserted: "We [graduates] of the [Tokyo University] Law Faculty are the most Japanese of Japanese" since Japan is essentially an "examination society."
Within the bureaucracy there was and is a sharp cleavage between the elite of career officials, who have passed the special higher examination, and lower-level bureaucrats. Distinguishing between these two levels enables one to resolve many contradictory statements about Japanese bureaucracy. I arrive at a bimodal view: of exceedingly able men directing the work of the central ministries, but much less able men in the offices of local government; of graduates from the two or three best universities versus those from lesser schools and, at a lower level yet, high school graduates; of generalists versus specialists, technicians, and clerks; of relative freedom in creative work versus mechanical, rote tasks; of the satisfaction of power versus the frustrations of a narrow routine. Of course, the bimodality is not simply between the central ministries and local government. Those who will reach the highest appointive positions in the central government will spend some time in prefectural-level offices. There are planning and executive posts at the prefectural level that are highly demanding, and many of the sections of the central ministries are filled with clerks, assistants, researchers, and temporary employees performing the most routine kind of work.
The elite bureaucrats move frequently from post to post and often occupy certain positions which are, as it were, on a special track, reserved for the most promising careerists. In the late Meiji period, a Tokyo University graduate might enter the Home Ministry, then become the assistant chief of police in a small city, move back to a different bureau in the ministry, then to a prefectural government post, and so on. Today, a Finance Ministry official may have a similar career pattern-moving from the ministry to a brief appointment in a prefectural tax office, then back to the ministry, then again to a prefectural office, and then back again to the ministry. Even after the Occupation separation-along American lines-of central and prefectural government, this type of transfer of officials from the central to the state level still continues.
The special aura of power that still surrounds the elite administrators can be explained partially in terms of their postcareer pattern. There is an unwritten rule in the bureaucracy that university graduates who entered in any given year cannot serve under men who entered at the same time or later. Since bureaucracy is pyramidal-the number of posts at each higher rank decreases-this rule means that those of each class passed over for promotion must be retired. This resembles the system in the armed forces of the United States. Some of those sloughed off in this fashion are kept in service for a while longer by postings to high positions in prefectural governments. But even the few who become bureau chiefs or vice-ministers, the highest posts in the system, are usually retired in their early or middle fifties. These men, the elite of the elite, often receive their rewards for loyal service after retirement. Some become the directors of corporations, receiving fees considerably greater than their former salaries. Some are appointed as members of semi-official advisory commissions (shingikai ). A few begin a political career and make it to the Diet, and a handful achieve the eminence of a cabinet post. Because such postretirement careers are the pattern in Japan (some ministries are better situated for this than others), even the junior bureaucrat who has passed the higher examination is viewed as a possible future member of the select company that defines Japan's national goals. This contributes to his status, even though his salary may be less than his opposite number in Mitsubishi.
Because of the variety of career patterns, even among the higher officialdom, there is no unanimity about the merit of life in the bureaucracy. One official of the prewar Home Ministry privately compared the life of the official to "soaking in lukewarm water." It lacks the satisfaction of a good hot bath, yet "as long as one remains in it, one will not catch cold. But if one loses his patience and jumps out, he will invariably come down with a cold." On the other extreme the editorialist Akimoto Hideo once rode on the bullet train with a budget examiner, one of the most powerful officials of the Finance Ministry. The official suddenly told him to look out the window. "See that bridge over there? I built it." A few minutes later he pointed out: "See that road? The wide one. That's my work too." Then after a while he said again: "See that windbreak forest over there? That was one of my most difficult jobs." Akimoto noted the expression of consummate satisfaction on the face of the official. Between these two extremes are the observations of a young career official in the Foreign Ministry:
We climb the hierarchy with exactly the same speed. The question is which post one is assigned to. This is not an absolute indicator, as the Foreign Ministry has the policy of assigning career officers alternately between good (Europe and the United States) and not so desirable (Africa, some of the Asian countries, and South America) posts. As we climb with the same speed, there is no real competition, although almost all of us, having gone through a very competitive educational system, are competitive in a good sense. That is, everybody is a genuinely hard worker, disliking easy posts. Usually we are intelligent, but, surprisingly, some of us are not so intelligent. Because we are given reasonably responsible and important jobs while in junior grade, the stupid ones become conspicuous at once. They are not, however, punished, at least in salary or grade. This kind of promotion continues until we become counselors. From then on it is luck.
We share the same interests both in personal matters and professionally. Over dinner or cocktails we talk a lot about foreign affairs and are quite willing to be critical of the government, though we aren't to people who might quote us. The atmosphere of the office, either in Tokyo or abroad, depends a great deal on the personality of the men, particularly of the chief. Generally speaking, discussion is free. We are invited to dissent. The level of discussion is usually high. For example, I am in charge of such and such a matter and am expected to know the facts about it. Facts are important. Treaty clauses, technical details of strategic thinking, dates, figures, etc., are considered more important than sheer speculation, although speculation, too, is expected of us. We often say that if an officer is incapable of becoming an expert in six months concerning the subject matter of his assignment, he shouldn't be taken seriously. The majority of the officers accomplish this mark with ease.
When one talks with the higher officials of other ministries, the content of their work may vary, but the sense of competence and self-confidence they project is much the same. In this respect they are not unlike Japanese business leaders.
Is this elitist consciousness appropriate in a democratic polity? Many Japanese say that it is not, arguing that bureaucrats tend to look down on civilians from their position of superiority. This is summed up in the old maxim, "officials are honored and the people are despised" (kanson minpi ). It is not that the populace distrusts the bureaucracy-though some on the left do. Most recognize its competence and give it a measure of respect. It is not too much to say, in fact, that many in the opposition parties dislike it because of its competence. But all complain of the arrogance of officials. The resentment against this arrogance may be the most seriously dysfunctional aspect of the whole system.
Masuda Yoneji, a onetime official in the Ministry of Labor, wrote that after he became section chief, visitors to the ministry would bow deeply and speak to him in exaggeratedly polite language as if he were "a member of a different race." When he went to inspect a textile mill in Aichi, he was made to feel a degree of superiority and satisfaction as never before in his life. He was met on the train platform by the section chief, a ten-year official, and his two aides from the local government office. They treated him politely, bowed, carried his briefcase to the waiting car, and escorted him to the local inn. After he bathed, he was visited by the works manager and section head in charge of labor affairs of the factory he was to inspect. They called in geisha, plied him with drinks, and in general treated him with such a combination of respect and deference (English does not do justice to the expressions used) that for the first time in his life he felt the "indescribable pleasure" of embodying in himself "the power of the state."
Excerpted from Modern Japanese Organization and Decision-Making Copyright © 1985 by Ezra F. Vogel. Excerpted by permission.
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