Japanese democracy and the relationship between bureaucrats and politicians

Japanese democracy and the relationship between bureaucrats and politicians

On the one hand, citizens elect politicians so they can implement the policies they promised during the electoral campaign; on the other hand, bureaucrats are recruited – often after an exam – because they have certain technical knowledge that is essential to the implementation of these policies. Politicians receive a mandate from the People and they generally need to rely on the know-how of these bureaucrats, who have to comply as loyal subordinates, in accordance with the weberian archetype of modern bureaucracy and the rule of hierarchy. But if they take advantage of their knowledge and the relative ignorance of the politicians in order to shape policies’ content according to their interests, we can then consider that it is bureaucrats who are actually governing, despite the politicians’ elective mandate they get from the citizens.

The chain of mandates in the Japanese parliamentary regime

Even more than in other countries, Japanese politico-administrative relations have resulted in numerous studies since the end of the World War II. Until the 1970s, the main theory was that bureaucrats were actually the ones leading the decision-making process (this is called the thesis of the bureaucratic domination, kanryō shihai-ron). The Japanese bureaucracy was powerful and as a matter of fact, many influent politicians were former bureaucrats. But at the end of the 1970s, as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians had gained more influence while remaining in power since the creation of the party in 1955, some scholars like Muramatsu Michio started nuancing the above-mentioned thesis and contesting the so-called non-democratic nature of Japan’s political system. They argued that LDP backbenchers were the true leaders, although working closely with bureaucrats (this is called the thesis of the party predominance, seitō yūi-ron). If these two theses seem to be in contradiction with each other, they converge on the fact that the prime minister and his/her government were relatively weak vis-à-vis bureaucrats and LDP backbenchers. For each policy sector, an alliance (composed of LDP Diet members, bureaucrats from the related ministry and pressure groups) often managed to block government’s attempts to jeopardise its interests. Regarding the agricultural sector for instance, there was a strong cooperation between bureaucrats from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forest and Fisheries, LDP backbenchers specialised in this field and the Japanese agricultural cooperatives (usually called nōkyō).

National Diet building in the foreground with Lower House Diet members’ offices
and the Japan Patent Office in the background
© Arnaud Grivaud, september 2007


Diagram explaining the relationship between politicians, bureaucrats and lobbies

The idea that Japan should be led by a strong government and a strong prime minister sprung up principally from the 1990s, with the economic crisis and the bursting of numerous politico-administrative scandals (we can mention the Recruit scandal, the scandal of the transfusions with HIV contaminated-blood, the scandal of the purchase with public money of doubtful debts owned by financial institutions specialised in real estate loans, etc.). The executive branch had to be capable of imposing decisions that were sometimes rough but in the interest of the largest number of citizens, despite some bureaucrats and LDP backbenchers’ resistances. During more than fifteen years, multiple institutional reforms, which goal was the emergence of governments provided with such a leadership, have been successively implemented: electoral reform, reorganisation of the ministries, increase in the number of ministers’ staffers, restrictions for bureaucrats’ speeches at the Diet, broadening of ministers’ room for manoeuvre regarding bureaucrat appointments, etc.

Koizumi Jun.ichirō’s government (2001-2006) gave to observers the feeling that reforms had been successful. The prime minister had indeed managed to win several battles against the fraction of the LDP backbenchers and the bureaucracy that was opposed to his neoliberal project. The privatisation of highway public corporations, but above all, the privatisation of Japan’s Post, constituted the climax of this conflict that mainly took place inside the Majority. On the other hand, the three LDP cabinets successively created from 2006 to 2009 gave the impression that they had gone back to the time when Japanese governments were unable to display a strong leadership. There is no doubt that the context in which Koizumi took the power and his ability to dramatize his struggle against the representatives of “old politics” have been decisive in his success; although they were indispensable elements, institutional reforms alone could not be the guarantee for every government to overcome the oppositions from its bureaucracy or its Majority.

Picture appearing on LDP’s manifesto for the election of 2005, which resulted

from the dissolution of the Lower House by Koizumi.
It is written : “Japan’s Post privatisation is the mother of all reforms.
The Koizumi reforms are a promise made by the LDP to the People;
therefore we will see them through to completion”.  

However, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) arrived to power in 2009 – thusly provoking the first ‘true’ power shift since 1955 – advocating the need for new reforms of the institutions, which it claimed had only been superficially transformed; once again, the solution was to be an institutional one. Institutions have then been created, others have been abolished, contacts between bureaucrats and backbenchers have been prohibited… According to DPJ’s electoral promises, this was to “enable politicians to take back the control over the decision-making process”, as they had to “stop relying excessively on bureaucrats” (these idea can be respectively summed up by the concepts of seiji shudō and datsu kanryō izon, which have been widely reused by Japanese medias). This mistrust toward bureaucracy was also particularly strong because many DPJ members were considering that it had served their political opponent for such a long time that it would necessarily try to sabotage new government policies. This analysis cruelly lacked nuance and the complete eviction of bureaucrats from the decision-making process resulted in multiple dysfunctions in the communication and the coordination inside the government. These issues became particularly patent during the bad crisis management of the aftermaths of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and Fukushima’s nuclear plant accident; this led the government to soften its position toward the bureaucracy.

A candidate without any party affiliation running for the municipal election
in Kobe reuses DPJ’s anti-bureaucratic rhetoric one month after the party won

© Arnaud Grivaud, October 2009

If many bureaucrats were sceptical regarding DPJ’s promises when it came to power, they had nonetheless their professional ethos (and a legal duty!) that commanded them to follow their ministers’ directives. Some of them were even enthusiastic at the idea to serve a new power that might end LDP’s controversial habits that were not without exasperating them as well as the citizens. Of course, some sources attest that a few high-rank bureaucrats have actively undermined the government so that it fails on specific issues (namely the transfer of US military base out of the Okinawa island), but it is principally the lack of a clear political line in the DPJ that was responsible for most of the malfunctions. Finally, from 2009 to 2012, DPJ’s governments – like many others before – have proved to be unable to display a strong leadership while maintaining the cohesion in the party.

After Shinzō Abe’s LDP won the election of 2012 and started to implement the ‘Abenomics’, the relations between politicians and bureaucrats that the Prime Minister Noda (2011-2012) had already appeased became even calmer. If he did not state it loud and clear, Abe shared nonetheless the idea that a government had to control the bureaucracy steadily. With his reform of the senior civil service adopted in 2014, the prime minister and his entourage have a room for manoeuvre much broader than any government before regarding appointments of the high-rank bureaucrats. Medias noticed – rightly – that from 2013 until now, Abe have been involved in these nominations more than any prime minister before, and they highlight every year several promotions of bureaucrats described as “close to the chief of the Cabinet”.

But despite some discontentment expressed among the ministries regarding some “politicised nominations”, Abe took care of not disrupting excessively bureaucracy’s human resources management habits, even though he was legally entitled to do so. It is certainly this relatively careful stance that allowed him to make bureaucracy comply with changes without antagonising it.

Abe Shinzō and the other candidates to the LDP presidential election of 2012. He ended second at the first round, behind Ishiba Shigeru on his right, but won at the second round.

Since then, he has managed to stem his opponents in the party.
©TTNIS, September 2012

Does it mean that the Japanese representative democracy is doing well again? In fact, not better than the others: the abstention rate for the elections of 2012 was 40.7% and 47.4% for the elections of 2014 – a record. The opposition, which have been decomposed and then recomposed on rarely ideological criteria, is unable to attract citizens’ interest, or even to transform in electoral basis the popular protest movements opposed to the restart of nuclear plants, to the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, or to the adoption of the National Defence and Security bills in 2015. Once again, this opposition showed its versatility because the Democratic Progressive Party (Mishintō) – which resulted from a merger between the DPJ and the Japan Innovative Party (Ishin no tō) – split in two less than a month before the elections. The left wing of the party created the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (Rikken minshutō) and the right wing merged with the Party of Hope (Kibō no tō), founded by the governor of Tōkyō and former important figure of the LDP: Koike Yuriko. If the reader feels confused, he or she can comfort him or herself with the fact that Japanese electors are confused too. If no big surprise, it is indeed a new LDP victory that is coming, or rather a new failure of the opposition. Finally, one could argue that the fact that the Abe government is powerful and seems to be able to overcome the few resistances he faces is perfectly matching the goals the institutional reforms in the 1990s sought to achieve. But taking into account its weak democratic legitimacy which is tainted by the above-mentioned extremely low participation rate at the election, one can wonder if this situation is desirable.

Arnaud Grivaud

He is a postdoctoral researcher at the Inalco since 2017.
Under the supervising of Eric Seizelet, he has defended, on the 17th
of October 2016 at the University of Paris Diderot, his Ph.D. thesis entitled The Reorganisation of the Political Power in Japan: the Bureaucracy in
the Japanese Political System from the 1990’s until today
. He is a jurist and a political scientist and he has studied Japanese at the University of Paris Diderot, where he has taught as an ATER (Temporary Lecturer and Research Assistant) from 2014 to 2017. His researches focus on
the Japanese political system, on the bureaucracy and, more recently,
on the evolution of the role of the State during the last three decades.
He received the Shibusawa-Claudel Prize for his Ph.D. thesis (34th edition – 2017).



Grivaud Arnaud, La réorganisation du pouvoir politique au Japon : la haute fonction publique dans le système politique japonais des années 1990 à nos jours, Thèse de doctorat en études japonaise, sous la direction d’Éric Seizelet, Paris, université Paris Diderot, 2016, 560 p.

Grivaud Arnaud, « La redéfinition de la place de la haute fonction publique dans les institutions politiques au Japon depuis les années 1990 », dans Malinas David-Antoine et Martine Julien (dir.), Japon pluriel 11 : actes du onzième colloque de la Société française des études japonaises, Arles, Philippe Piquier, décembre 2016, p. 39-47.

Grivaud Arnaud, « La réforme des institutions politiques japonaises à partir des années 1990 : les emprunts faits au modèle britannique de Westminster », dans Richer-Rossi Françoise (dir.), D'une culture à l'autre. Bras de fer et brassage(s), Paris, Houdiard, janvier 2017, p. 122-145.

Krauss Ellis S., Muramatsu Michio, « Bureaucrats and Politicians in Policymaking: The Case of Japan », The American Political Science Review, vol. 78, n°1, mars 1984, p. 126-146.

Nakamura Akira, « Un réexamen du modèle asiatique de gouvernement à la suite de la crise économique mondiale : un point de vue japonais tiré de l’expérience de la triple catastrophe de mars 2011 », Revue Internationale des Sciences Administratives, vol. 78, février 2012, p. 255-275.

Zakowski Karol, Decision-Making Reform in Japan – The DPJ’s failed attempt at a political-led government, Londres, Routledge, 2015, 252 p.


Contact : arnaud.grivaud@univ-paris-diderot.fr