TOKYO – Two decades have passed since Japanese government ministries and agencies were reorganized into their current structure. Since 2001, the old bottom-up policy-making method has been replaced by the prime minister’s office taking the lead, with much less involvement from ruling party officials. Known as the kantei, the Prime Minister’s office is now the most powerful institution in the country.
“Personally, I will lead the implementation,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on May 7, when the government set a goal of performing one million coronavirus vaccinations per day.
The Prime Minister kept his word on implementation. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare had no intention of setting such a target and Taro Kono, the minister responsible for regulatory reform and vaccinations, was skeptical of the possibility achieve the goal. Contrary to low expectations, the target was easily reached in June.
The history of kantei in determining policy can be divided into three main periods: the 1990s, when the new system was conceived; the 2000s, when it was implemented; and the period following the victory of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in December 2012, in which the kantei became the preeminent government body.
Before that, Japanese politics were represented by the “iron triangle”, made up of politicians, bureaucracy and industry. Lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have fallen into different “political tribes” broken down by industry or sector, such as agriculture and social security. Along with ministries and industries, they wielded considerable influence in policy making.
But after Recruit’s insider trading scandal in 1988, the triangle fractured. The scandal saw unlisted shares distributed to members of different political parties, many of whom profited when the shares went public.
After the scandal, strong criticism of money in politics erupted, examining the multiple-seat constituencies of the electoral system, in which candidates of the same party would run against each other. Every faction in the LDP has tried to get its candidates elected, and fierce competition has made the campaign more expensive.
This prompted the PLD to adopt electoral reform and introduce single-member constituencies, which effectively limit each constituency to one candidate per party. This new system made the party leader more powerful while weakening the influence of factions.
Following changes to the electoral system, then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto changed the structure of government. In 1996, he proposed that budgeting, personnel decisions and administrative management be the responsibility of the kantei. This change came into effect in 2001. The newly created Cabinet Secretariat and Cabinet Office have strengthened the policy-making functions of government agencies and ruling parties.
Junichiro Koizumi of the PLD, who became Prime Minister in 2001, has benefited greatly from the overhaul of the system. The new Economic and Fiscal Policy Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, became the main arena for policy making, with Heizo Takenaka, professor of economics at the time, as the responsible minister. The kantei then strengthened its grip on the decision-making process by creating the Basic Policy for Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform, which to this day serves as a guiding force for economic and fiscal policy.
One of the best examples of this change has been the privatization of the postal service, one of Koizumi’s main goals. Koizumi called the opposition within his ruling PLD “forces of resistance”. In the 2005 general election, he refused to endorse PLD candidates in local elections who opposed the privatization of posts. Instead, he gave his support to others more in keeping with his thought, who were called Koizumi’s “assassins”. Making full use of the new electoral system, he took advantage of the kantei to win the power struggle within the PLD.
To fully understand how the Kantei became what it is today, we have to look at the governments under the Democratic Party of Japan from 2009 to 2012. The PDJ, which wrested power from the PLD on its transfer platform from leadership to politicians, created the National Policy Unit under the direct control of the kantei to centralize policy-making. He also created a council in which ministers and deputy ministers could decide on important issues themselves.
However, it didn’t work out well. DPJ politicians have been unable to effectively control the bureaucracy and the Prime Minister has not exercised his leadership fully.
This was best characterized by the process in which the consumption tax was increased. The PDJ was made up of politicians from the Japanese Socialist Party, the Democratic Socialist Party and other parties with disparate political principles. In 2012, then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda paved the way for an increase in the consumption tax, but opponents of the move within the DPJ have quit the party en masse. In December of the same year, the PDJ was massively defeated in the lower house elections.
With Abe’s return to kantei, many members of the ruling coalition felt that the weakness shown by the DPJ had disappointed voters, prompting a search for leadership within the kantei.
This time, however, the kantei was different from that of the Koizumi administration: policymaking did not start with the Economic and Fiscal Policy Council. Instead, it came from Abe and her entourage. With then-Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, policy making was initiated by a small number of bureaucrats, including Abe’s Chief Secretary Takaya Imai.
Abe then led the PLD to six straight national election victories. Given this success, party members could hardly question the leadership.
In 2014, the Cabinet Personnel Bureau was created to manage the appointment of senior officials in each ministry and agency, and the last part of Hashimoto’s reforms, “personnel affairs”, came into effect.
How did the kantei behave under the Suga administration?
Although Suga inherited a powerful institution in Kantei, differences arose. While Abe’s emphasis was on policies based on general principles and ideals such as constitutional reform and national security, Suga focused more on stand-alone policies, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse, the creation of a digital agency, the reduction of mobile phone costs and the treatment of infertility.
The main players are also different. Suga doesn’t rely on a small group of bureaucrats like Abe did with Imai, who was from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu rarely take on leadership roles. Instead, the prime minister gives direct orders to cabinet ministers like Kono and Ryota Takeda, the home affairs and communications minister, to advance individual policies.
But the power of the kantei, which once seemed unwavering, shows signs of vulnerability. For example, local governments now have the power to ask restaurants to reduce opening hours during the pandemic after the central government decides on basic policy. It has also become evident that kantei cannot be relied upon to secure hospital beds, vaccinations and public health facilities.
So far, the leadership of the kantei has been discussed in terms of the relationship between the government and the ruling party, or the government and the ministries. But if Japan is to deal with crisis situations, the next focus will be on kantei and its role between national and local governments.
Japan has so far promoted decentralization. By delegating powers to local governments, Tokyo allows them to define their own policies.
As attractive as it is in normal times, it risks the national government and local governments being out of step if another crisis arises. After 20 years, the search for a new governance model began.
Inside Japanese Politics is a column that focuses on the details and inner workings of Tokyo politics, politics and foreign relations.