How Efficient is Japan’s “Kanrysei” Really? Essay

Labeled the “Don Quixote of the political world,” Junichiro Koizumi, 59, became Japan’s new prime minister on April 25, 2001, replacing the very unpopular Yoshiro Mori1, who had resigned under public pressure. He was elected by a majority of party members, something, which is new in Japanese politics, before that the party powerful in backrooms selected the prime ministers. The maverick Koizumi is even known for not engaging in “ryotei” politics, which is the term for decisions that are made at expensive restaurants or ryotei. Even though he is hardly a newcomer to Japanese politics, he has served for 10 straight terms, his often unconventional behavior, a different hairstyle as well as his unusual lifestyle indicate a shift in Japanese politics that may be m ore significant than many observers have hinted at (“Koizumi Dons,” 2001).

His cabinet selections were marked by an unusual diversity when he picked five women, an economic adviser, and two other outsiders (Struck, 2001). The question now is if Koizumi’s election will reform Japan’s fledgling economy and whether Koizumi can bring more democracy, as he promises when he flirts with a change of the constitution, which would establish the popular vote for the prime minister. “This is a structural reform in politics, (…) a deregulation in the political circles,” Koizumi said in a news conference (“Koizumi Floats,” 2001). How successful can Koizumi be if he wants to change Japan’s political system? On the one hand, his popular mandate may signify the beginning of a new era for Japan and Japanese politics. Japan’s bureaucracy may be in the way of any of his reform attempts, especially since he has little behind-the-scenes influence (“Change,” 2001). This paper will focus on the need to reform, which can be shown in the ineffectiveness of the extremely conservative bureaucracy, as well as Koizumi’s chances of reforming the powerful bureaucracy.

To completely understand the reasons for the relative inflexibility of the Japanese bureaucracy, a look at the development of this powerful institution is necessary. The origins of the bureaucracy in Japan go back before the Tokugawa period when basic ideas of bureaucratic ideas found their way to Japan and were a result of the Chinese influence, who had a Confucian style bureaucracy. However during the Tokugawa period, a period of isolation, which lasted from 1603 till 1867, there was no need for a bureaucratic type of organization because Japan was organized into many shogunates in which individual lords reigned over certain areas. With the opening of Japan in 1853 by Commodore Perry and sweeping reforms beginning in 1868, Japan became a more centralized nation, which created the need for a bureaucratic organization. In 1871, the regional power of the daimyo, part of the feudal system, was abolished and in its place 300 prefectures were created, which were soon reduced to 72 and today there are only 47 are left (Hoye, 1999). In this period, which is known as the Meji Restoration, Japan gradually moved toward a bureaucratically as well as quasi-democratically governed country (Hunter, 1989). Manifested in the1889 Meji Constitution, the bureaucracy was in many ways structured on the Prussian model, which also was the basis for Max Weber’s essay on Bureaucracy. This went along with Japan’s first attempt in becoming a democratic nation.

Unfortunately, the Japanese democracy was not a very strong one and over the years three power centers evolved in Japan. There were the zaibatsu, industrial conglomerates, which pretty much controlled the economy. The military was another powerful organization in this era. The third was the bureaucracy, which was responsible to the emperor only. Japan’s imperialistic notions of expansion were mainly driven by these three forces and they ultimately led Japan into the Second World War, when their aspirations grew too big and they attacked Pear Harbor. While in Germany the nation had been drawn into the war almost single-handedly by the charismatic Adolf Hitler and his party, in Japan it was more or less not an individual act but for a large part it was the three powers, which were all more or less bureaucratically organized, that were collectively responsible. After the Second World War, the U.S. occupation force dismantled the zaibatsu and the military but left the bureaucracy pretty much intact with only a few bureaucrats cleansed. This led John Maki to write in his 1947 essay “The Role of the Bureaucracy in Japan” that “[i]f any single organized group in Japan today possesses the power to prevent the creation of a peaceful, responsible form of government in that country, it is the bureaucracy” (Maki, 1947, p. 391).

Japan had been devastated after the Second World War, two atomic bombs had destroyed two major Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the rest of the country was economically in rubbles when U.S. President Harry S. Truman decided to rebuild the nation. Because the US forces needed some institution in Japan to reconstruct the nation, they decided to strengthen the bureaucracy and use it as an instrument to make Japan the powerful nation it became, which was part of their idea of working through indirect government during the occupation (Johnson, 1995). The occupation forces, however, also wrote the Constitution of Japan that established the principle of the superiority of the Diet, the legislative body, and the responsiveness of the bureaucracy. Furthermore they dismantled the very powerful Home Ministry and reorganized the police and the educational system.

The attempt was to put more power into the hands of local authorities, but most of these attempts failed (Hoye, 1999). The legal foundations for Japan’s modern bureaucracy were laid in the National Service Law (October 21, 1947) and the National Public Service Law (July 10, 1948), which it is in ministries, agencies, and commissions divided. The 10 central ministries are the Ministry of Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunication, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (often referred to as MITI), the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, and the Ministry of the Environment. The chart in the appendix also shows also central agencies and commissions. It also shows the organization that was established as oversight over the bureaucracy, the National Personnel Authority (NPA).

The analysis of Japanese bureaucracy puts every outside observer before the problem that there is no point of agreement between different scholars, bureaucrats, or journalists. The opinions range from very powerful to control by the Diet, from unable to reform to a flexible body that has reformed itself a number of times. To make sense of the contradictions, I will first look at the hard data and then show how different authors read the evidence and come to their conclusions. The first aspect that will be analyzed is strength. The viewpoint of a dominating bureaucracy that makes reforms nearly impossible can be found in many texts (Maki, 1947; Garon, 1984; Impoco, 1988; Miyamoto, 1994; Johnson, 1995; Buckley, 1998), but the opposite viewpoint has found its followership, too (Pempel, 1992; McCubbins and Noble, 1995; Muramatsu, 1996; Drucker, 1998). This does not mean that there are no authors who stand somewhere in between such as Mitsutoshi Ito who says that bureaucracy is “semi-autonomous” (Ito, 1996, p. 63). Furthermore many analysts see a change in recent years toward more political control over the bureaucracy (Aberbach et.al., 1990; Watanabe, 1994).

The data shows that Japan has one of the smallest bureaucracies of the advanced democracies. As of 1992, there were only about 4.5% of the total population, or 9% of the employed population working for the government. Compared to the democracies of the United States, France, then West Germany, and Britain this is rather small because those countries have somewhere between 6-9% government employees of the population or 14-20% of the employed population (Pempel, 1992). Even though I do not have more updated numbers, one can assume that the difference between Japan and the other nations is still present. A look at a trend from 1980 to 1990 shows that government employment has steadily fallen in Japan from 8.8% in 1980 to 7.9% in 1990. In most other western nations, this trend has been the opposite, for example in Norway this number rose from 25.3% to 32.0% (Muramatsu, 1996, p.21). Pempel argues that the self-conscious act to limit the governmental bureaucracy “creates an excellent counter-case to presumptions that bureaucratic expansion is inevitable” (Pempel, 1992, p. 19).

Nevertheless, the bureaucracy possesses a lot of power, as it is responsible for a majority of the bills passed by the Diet. In the 91st session of the Diet, only 45 percent of the bills were introduced by Diet members and 55% percent by Cabinet members. A look at the success rate shows the contrast even more markedly between the two institutions. Cabinet bills had a success rate of 74 percent, or 75 bills, and only 10 Diet member bills survived, which is a 12 percent success rate (Kakizawa, 1983). In 1996, the difference was even more dramatically, 99 Cabinet bills passed while only 11 bills sponsored by Diet members passed. This is, however, common in parliamentary systems and comparable to countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and France (Hoye, 1999).

Autonomy is one of the most important aspects that indicate the extent of the power of the Japanese bureaucracy. The National Public Service Law of 1948 created the National Personnel Authority (NPA) to establish oversight over the bureaucracy. In the chart of the Japanese government in the appendix, one can see the position of the National Personnel Authority. The NPA’s main functions are to establish rules in regard to appointment, promotion, and retirement, to conduct recruitment examinations, to make recommendations for changes in salary, to set up training programs, to oversee working conditions and welfare, to monitor ethics and discipline, and to “review adverse action taken by ministries and agencies” (National Personnel Authority, 2001).

The three commissioners, who head the NPA, are appointed by the Cabinet, with the consent of the Diet for a four-year term. Furthermore commissioners are not allowed to have been involved in politics in recent years and at least one of the commissioners needs to come from a different faculty of a university. Finally these commissioners cannot be dismissed by the Diet. All these criteria are supposed to ensure neutrality (ibid.). This, however, takes the oversight away from the legislature and gives it to another independent bureaucracy. Independence for the bureaucracy means, so a classic in Japanese political science Masao Maryuama, that officials can exert a great deal of unchecked, concentrated power, which creates a ‘system of irresponsibilities’ (Maryuama, 1963). The laws, however, also failed to institute impeachment procedures, which are a necessary tool of legislative oversight. Furthermore, the number of political appointees was not increased and still only the top cabinet posts are political appointees (Abe, Shindo, and Kawato, 1994).

Another factor that has a potential to make bureaucracy powerful is the fact that civil servants have to pass difficult entrance exams. During the Meji period most recruits came from the Tokyo Imperial University and still today 35% of successful applicants come from Tokyo University and 15% from Kyoto University, another prestigious school. The rest of the about 15 of the 460 odd universities in Japan see only 10% of their graduates admitted to the bureaucracy. Thus, a bias between the different universities still exists although it has been declining gradually. This highly meritocratic system of selection today ensures that some of the most highly educated people enter the Civil Service (Pempel, 1992).

While in 1957 only seven out of ten of the civilian servants in a sample of the Administrative Service2 were recruited based on these examinations, in the 1980s, this number had climbed to eight out of ten. An overall picture of the recruitments of the bureaucracy shows, however, that evaluations have been more important than the examinations, which is due to the fact that many of those are specialized personnel (Koh, 1989). The high standard of education also assures that the people working in the bureaucracy belong to the elite, which is a clear contrast to that of the United States, where bureaucracy in general counts more as just another occupation (Aberbach et.al., 1990). One needs to also consider Japan’s educational system, which is more oriented toward memorization, or as some call it indoctrination, and studying for the tough entrance exams of the nation’s top universities. However there is no space for an analysis of the influences of education on the character of the bureaucracy and bureaucrats in particular, as well as the reciprocative effect of the Ministry of Education’s textbook approval process (van Wolferen, 1989; Herzog, 1993).

The quality of bureaucrats, moreover, is also ensured by the possibility of entering the business world at a high level of a private company after retiring, which is often labeled as amakudari, or descent from heaven, and considered creating an opening for corruption. Nevertheless, the fact that only highly educated people work for the bureaucracy gives it enough power to control many aspects of the Japanese government. Employees tend to start at the bottom, work themselves up, and stay with the bureaucracy until retirement at the relatively early age of late 40s to mid-50s, which is due to the already mentioned amakudari. This also means that there is little horizontal entry of the bureaucracy (Pempel, 1992). This is combined by long working hours, including many hours of unpaid voluntary overtime.

These factors, of course, do no indicate ineffectiveness of the Japanese bureaucracy but they rather point in the direction of effectiveness. How can we then argue that Japanese bureaucracy is both ineffective and unable to change? Some analysts have even argued that Japanese bureaucracy is able to institute change. T.J. Pempel writes: “Because of the central role that the Japanese bureaucracy has played in planning and implementing so many of the major changes in Japan, it is a good example of the bureaucracy as planner and agent of change” (Pempel, 1992, p. 19). Yet Chalmers Johnson argues that because of overlapping responsibilities between agencies, also called nawabari ishiki (territorial consciousness), which creates the problem that in certain areas it is difficult to agree to any kind of reform. As an example Johnson has the failed attempt by the government to address the increasing problem of smog and traffic jams.

Yet within 10 years nothing happened because even though the Ministry of Transportation (responsible for taxi business) and the Police Agency (responsible for traffic control) had agreed to limit the number of private vehicles entering cities and the Ministry of Construction and the MITI had dropped their opposition, the attempt failed because of the Public Safety Commissions, which, through their influence convinced the Police Agency to change their mind. The Public Safety Commissions did this because they are heavily influenced by the automobile industry. The idea of personally operated taxis also received opposition form the Land Transportation Bureau (Rikum Kyoku), which is part of the Ministry of Transportation, because it crossed into their nawabari, or territory, as it would had to have given up control over large taxi companies to local governments (Johnson, 1995).

The mission of the Japanese bureaucracy has been fulfilled, however, as Japan has built itself up as one of the world’s strongest economic powers. Japan Inc., as it has often been called, has effectively used an export surplus to transformed Japan into the second most powerful economic power only second to the United States. However, many have argued that Japan needs to open her markets to continue to flourish (Miyamoto, 1994). A look at one bureaucrat’s experience will provide evidence that Japan’s bureaucracy is far from reforming itself, yet I would also argue, that if there is a consensus to change then the bureaucracy will change too. The need for consensus in the Japanese bureaucracy as well as politics is central. Especially Japanese political scientists have complained about the ineffectiveness of a consensus-oriented bureaucracy.

A couple of examples from Miyamoto’s book “Straitjacket Society” will be used to illustrate the inability to reform as well as the general ineffectiveness of the Japanese bureaucracy. The first event will be Miyamoto’s participation in an office trip on the weekend, which he considers as an unpaid part of “work.” The circumstances will show that there is no room for individuality in the Japanese bureaucracy, which also stifles creativity. Miyamoto’s successful attempt to get a two-week vacation in France and Spain will be the second example and it will show that standing out of a group is adverse to a bureaucrat’s chances of advancing. Furthermore it will also be shown that one factor for the ineffectiveness is the extraordinarily long time that paperwork takes because it needs virtually all the signatures of high level bureaucrats.

Masao Miyamoto had worked 11 years in the United States as a psychoanalyst when he returned to his home country in 1986. Here he entered the bureaucracy vertically as a deputy director for the Ministry of Health and Welfare he already accomplished something, which does not happen too often. He had been culturally Americanized, he believed in the separation of powers and the equality of women, and therefore valued individuality and freedom of choice, which manifested itself in his life style (Terry, 1994). When he learned of an annual office trip over weekend, he did not think much about what the trip could entail and since he had nothing better to do he decided to go along. What he found out is very telling for the Japanese bureaucracy and Japanese society. Everyone went in the same train, everyone lived in the same hotel, everyone dressed alike and when he decided to wear something different he appeared like the odd man out. When he decided to get an extra blanket for the night, the maid laughed, which showed to Miyamoto that everyone should be satisfied with one blanket.

That different tastes and habits exist are completely disregarded on the trip. The drinking together led to everyone getting drunk as colleagues pressure each other to drink more and more. There was no way to be moderate, especially if one wanted to be accepted by the group. “The Japanese propensity to do things in groups, I couldn’t help thinking, was what made it possible for party-goers to flaunt the worst sort of behavior and think nothing of it” (Miyamoto, 1994, p. 66). There is a strong pressure to disregard one’s own interests and habits for the group. Miyamoto explains that the more loyally one follows the group the more likely is promotion. Furthermore promotion is also based rather on seniority than merit, but the record one gets as a bureaucrat influences the chances of getting certain assignments that will help him3 in his career (Koh, 1989). Rather than an enjoyable excursion, the trip reinforced groupism, which allows the bureaucrat to be led with messhi hoko, which are the Japanese words for self-sacrifice for the group, something that Miyamoto, as psychoanalyst, can only understand as the sadomasochistic element of life in the Japanese bureaucracy (ibid.).

Messhi hoko is an innate aspect of Japanese bureaucracy as Miyamoto’s vacation planning and trip show. First of all requesting two weeks off for vacation was something that was completely out of the question. When he had hinted at the possibility, he was told clearly that no one could take two weeks in a row for vacation, because others would want that as well. Yet Miyamoto went ahead and planned a vacation anyway hoping that he could find a way to get it anyway.

So he devised a plan, something he hoped they could not refuse: His supposedly sick mother needed her son to attend with her Buddhist memorial services in the Wakayama Prefecture, which he did for two reasons, first the long distance of the location from Tokyo combined with the fact that it was also his birthplace and second because the bureaucracy puts great importance in ceremonies. The ceremony lasts only a day, so in order to get two weeks off, he decided to tell his superiors that this trip would be the last chance for his mother to visit her family. The initial reaction he got was a clear no. “How can I maintain office discipline if I approve a request like this?” (Miyamoto, 1994, p.103) Miyamoto’s director told him. This shows that the loss of a personal life is directly linked to discipline, which is ultimately an effort to create subservient employees. Work, so Miyamoto, becomes the same as private life in such an environment.

To get the permission to take a leave, a bureaucrat needs to have the signatures of all his superiors. Eventually was he was able to cheat his two weeks off, he himself described his strategy as “toading,” but it was a lot of trouble because he had to set up his family and he had to call back during half way through his vacation. In addition, if a bureaucrat wants to leave the country he has to file another form. On another occasion Miyamoto blatantly refused to fill out the form and even when he returned and he was given the opportunity to still fill out the form, he still refused.

“Freed from the constraints of the bureaucracy, [the Japanese] will then be able to lead richer, more meaningful lives” (Miyamoto, 1994, p. 24). That’s how Miyamoto summarizes his experiences with the bureaucracy in the introduction. Some of Miyamoto’s arguments will now scrutinized. First he claims that the closed market in Japan, that has helped Japan advance in the postwar years to become one of the world’s most powerful nations, will not open any time soon because bureaucrats could never agree to downsizing and restructuring. Miyamoto’s argument comes from his experiences, especially the approval process which can take a long time (ibid. 1994).

According to Peter F. Drucker, the attempts to restrict the power of the bureaucracy have failed across the board for over 25 years. He writes that “ruling elites – especially those which, like Japan’s, are based not on birth or wealth but on function – have remarkable staying power.” This can be shown in the inability of the Japanese bureaucracy to the economic crisis in the 1990s when they were unable to get the economy back on its feet with attempts to raise stock prices, real estate prices and promoted an increase in consumption and capital investment (Drucker, 1998). Japan’s bureaucracy has increased more than tenfold since the 1940s, which seems like a relatively large number, but is much lower than most other major industrialized countries (Pempel, 1992).

Another of Miyamoto’s claims is very provocative because it alleges that Japan resembles less a democracy and more a totalitarian country, only without a clear Big Brother figure. He says that “even though the separation of the three branches is guaranteed, bureaucratic control of all forms of power is nearly absolute” (Miyamoto, 1994, p. 22). This, he asserts, is in accordance with the suppression of critical ideas, which he experienced first hand. The totalitarian nature of the Japanese government thus is in the structure more than anywhere else (ibid. 1994). If the problem is as profound as that, the question that has to be posed is whether there is a real chance for change any time soon. Many authors, however, disagree with Miyamoto’s assessment of the autonomy and power of the bureaucracy.

In recent years there may have been something like a quiet revolution going on in Japan that has only culminated in the recent election of Junichiro Koizumi. The first indication of a bureaucratic decline could be seen in the reaction to the inability of the bureaucracy to react to the economic crisis in the 1990s and to the increasing number of scandals that have riveted the nation. The reason was that the economic crisis required a chance in economic policy. The United States, for example, demanded in 1993 that Japan should open its construction market. Nobuo Ishihara, a powerful man behind-the-scenes of Japan at the time, just called the top construction bureaucrat to tell him that he has to accept the opening. This is a way in which the bureaucracy reforms itself, as Ishihara is not elected and also not accountable (Watanabe, 1994). Charles Lane wrote in an editorial for the Denver Rocky Mountain News in 1994 that “[the crisis] is a necessary prelude to economic and political reform, which the last two prime ministers, Tsutomu Hata and Morihiro Hosokawa, attempted to enact against fierce resistance of old-style corporations, politicians, and bureaucrats” (Lane, 1994, p. 84A). Frank Gibney, furthermore, writes that in the early 1990s the traditional bureaucracy as well as the type of policy making that has governed Japan consistently since the Second World War was slowly dissolving itself (Gibney, 2001).

The history of Japan has shown that it is not surprising that the bureaucracy risen to such create prominence in post-war Japan. Many have argued that strength and relative independence from legislative control leads to the problem that reform becomes very difficult if not impossible (Miyamoto, 1992; Abe, Shindo, and Kawato, 1994). This is based on the assumption that the bureaucracy will not voluntarily relinquish any power and therefore will rather wax than wane. The example of the competing bureaucracies where there is not one that wants to give up power over their nawabari supports this position.

However, the example of Nobuo Ishihara shows that if there is enough pressure the bureaucracy is willing and able to change. It is not easy to tell whether the new prime minister stands a chance in reforming the system. He is, as was already mentioned, not an insider to Japan’s power structure but he may be seen as a symbol of an ongoing chance in Japanese society that the bureaucracy will probably not be able to resist. If we assume that Japanese society is build on the principle of consensus, it seems logical that once the population has come to a consensus that there needs to be a chance the bureaucracy will eventually follow. The problem is, however, that the bureaucracy is extremely conservative and because of the lack of inventiveness of the individual bureaucrat there is little hope for a sudden change. This could only happen should the Japanese economy continue to stagnate or fall even further. For now all eyes remain on Koizumi and the upcoming election this fall and whether he can change the system or not.

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Appendix

(http://www.jinji.admix.go.jp/english/fig/fig_01.htm)

1 A Kyodo News poll showed on April 4, 2001, that Yoshiro Mori’s administration had only 13.6% support, while the disapproval was at 81.8% (“Poll,” 2001).

2 This refers to B.C. Koh’s selection of almost half of the general-service servants as well as those working in clerical, managerial, and administrative positions. In his book this is labeled Administrative Service I.

3 The male pronoun is used because still today most of the bureaucrats are male, even though the 1990s has seen a sizable increase (Pempel, 1992).

4 Two opposing views in The Japan Times Online can show the opinions of whether Koizumi brings chance or not are split. While an article by Hugh Cortazzi, a former British ambassador to Japan, says that there is a “real chance for change,” another article written by the American journalist Sam Jameson proclaims the end to hopes of change (Cortazzi, 2001; Jameson, 2001).