The government led by the Democratic Party of Japan places limits on meetings between bureaucrats and the prime minister.
When top bureaucrats such as administrative vice ministers or directors-general from Kasumigaseki, the central government district in Tokyo, meet with the prime minister, the minister or vice ministers they serve will, as a general rule, also attend. This is to guard against bureacrats independently delivering information to the prime minister to try and seize the initiative in policy decision-making.
I believe this is part of the DPJ's political leadership, but I've come to think that things have gone too far.
Even so, there is one bureaucrat who has relatively open access to the prime minister's office: Shinsuke Sugiyama, director-general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, an office within the Foreign Ministry. He has been a confidant of prime ministers Yukio Hatoyama, Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda since his previous posting as an official in charge of global warming issues. He is allowed to speak face to face with the nation's leader.
Sugiyama joined the ministry in 1977. His past assignments, include serving as director of the Treaties Division. When he was minister to South Korea, Sugiyama learned Korean in his spare time. He built such a vast network of personal connections that the Dong-A Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, introduced him as "Mr. Sugiyama, the man who has invited more than half the members of Korea's National Assembly to his home."
He is now at the forefront of Japanese diplomacy in Asia, shuttling between Tokyo, Washington, Beijing, Seoul and other capitals.
North Korea's long-range ballistic missile launch this month ended in failure. Fourteen years ago, when Pyongyang launched its first missile, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was flustered.
In fact, he admitted to having been taken by surprise.
North Korea continued to hog the news.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a surprise visit to North Korea; Japanese abductees return to Japan; North Korea conducted underground nuclear tests; and then last December, leader Kim Jong Il died.
Japan has learned to remain composed in its confrontations with Pyongyang. After the failed missile launch on April 13, a veteran Japanese diplomat said: "North Korea, a country suffering from economic disarray, played a diplomatic card to get food assistance and other aid: But instead, it embarrassed itself."
Prior to the latest launch, the Self-Defense Forces deployed Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) surface-to-air guided missiles in Okinawa and elsewhere. It also put its high-tech Aegis destroyers on stand-by. The SDF is working more closely with the U.S. military.
"China, which is strengthening its naval power in the South China Sea bit by bit, does not like it," a high-ranking Japanese government official said of the development.
Next up will be a diplomatic battle at the United Nations over sanctions against North Korea.
In China, a power struggle is evolving as the country prepares for a leadership handover this fall.
The political season continues in South Korea. The National Assembly election has just been held, and a presidential election is scheduled for the end of the year.
The pace of democratization is picking up in Myanmar.
Asia is undergoing major changes.
Japan must gather and analyze vast amounts of information and build strategies for its diplomacy. Sugiyama will keep on running at full speed.
Bureaucrats like Sugiyama use their own channels to gather information, and politicians like Noda and other leaders will make decisions based on that intelligence.
"Political leadership" itself, not just the term, is being tested.
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