Two years after taking office promising to cut senior bureaucrats down to size, the Democratic Party of Japan is realizing it may need the help of the mandarins after all.
Twice-weekly meetings of the vice ministers of the central government ministries were abolished under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on the grounds that they bolstered bureaucratic power. But the new administration under Yoshihiko Noda is now backtracking on the decision, reinstating regular Friday meetings of the senior officials.
On Sept. 9, 17 vice minister-level bureaucrats gathered at the Prime Minister's Official Residence for a working lunch.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura addressed them: "I want all of you to respond appropriately, because Renho, the state minister in charge of government revitalization, will be working aggressively (to reduce wasteful spending)."
The meeting was chaired by Makoto Taketoshi, who was promoted to deputy chief Cabinet secretary from the vice minister position at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism by Noda. The officials discussed post-quake reconstruction, the damage inflicted by Typhoon No. 12 and responses to the yen's soaring exchange rate.
Previously, vice-ministerial meetings were held every Monday and Thursday, and decided which bills and Cabinet orders would be approved at Cabinet meetings. In its 2003 campaign manifesto, the DPJ pledged to abolish the gatherings, labeling them a symbol of bureaucratic dominance. One of the first things Hatoyama did after becoming prime minister in 2009 was to deliver on the promise.
Decisions concerning each central government ministry were to be made by the minister, senior vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries.
However, Hatoyama's administration suffered as information from the bureaucratic machine began to dry up following its reforms. Wavering over the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma exposed problems with the new policymaking structure and politicians' vulnerability without bureaucratic support.
Naoto Kan, Hatoyama's successor, tried to remedy the problem by appointing Yoshito Sengoku as chief Cabinet secretary, partly because he had the trust of many central government bureaucrats. Last December, Sengoku asked the ministries to allow vice ministers to sit in on the meetings of the minister, senior vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries, saying their presence would make implementation of decisions easier.
After the Great East Japan Earthquake, a liaison council made up of the vice ministers of all ministries was established. The latest move to hold liaison council meetings every Friday looks very like a reinstatement of the pre-DPJ government structure.
Asked by reporters if the Friday gathering was effectively a return to the old vice-minister meetings, Taketoshi said: "It is important to share information and the meetings are useful for improving communications."
At a Sept. 9 news conference, Fujimura insisted: "It will become a much wider ranging meeting than in the past. It should by no means be considered a revival of the vice ministers meetings."
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