One of the long-running dramas since the changeover from Liberal Democratic Party to Democratic Party of Japan government has been who shall be in charge of the government policy making. Having allowed the weekly meeting of the Administrative Vice Ministers to disestablish itself and having abolished the Prime Minister’s Commission on Economic and Industrial Policy (Keizai Zaisei Shimon Kaigi), the DPJ-led government has had a heck of time working out a replacement set of institutions.
The 2009 election manifesto promised that the party would establish a National Strategy Bureau in charge of collating, evaluating, revising and then promulgating coherent national policies for the ministries to carry out. However, after more than a year in power, when the position of Director of the National Strategy office has passed through the hands of such powerful politicians as Kan Naoto and Sengoku Yoshito, the DPJ still had no functioning national strategy center. The National Strategy Unit became the orphan division of the government, overshadowed by its more telegenic rival innovation, the Government Revitalization Unit, whose televised hearings of bureaucrats being dragged over the coals by politicians and civilian appointees were one of the DPJ government's rare total triumphs. In July, it was even thought that the National Strategy office would be relegated to a talk shop, its sole responsibility being the offering of advice to the prime minister.
The fate of a government institution would hardly seem worth getting excited about, what with all the other political theatrics going on (the Hatoyama-Ozawa "money and politics" show, the debacle over the Futenma-to-Henoko move, the Hatoyama resignation and the rise of Kan, the DPJ mauling in the July House of Councillors election, the Kan-Ozawa leadership race). However, the question of just who would be in charge of policy making in Japan was a serious problem. The abolition of the DPJ's policy research council and the aimless course of the national strategy office contributed to the development of one of the most corrosive internal disputes of the party: the fight over the seeming concentration of seemingly all policy making power in the hands of Party Secretary- General Ozawa Ichiro. While Ozawa's grasp on policy making was not necessarily complete, the lack of a clear rival policy making organization or an explanation of how policies were being initiated left many in the party feeling like powerless outsiders. A winter rebellion of the concentration of power in Ozawa's grasp led to a showdown over the dismissal of Ubukata Yukio, a fight Ozawa atypically lost, as Ubukata was reinstated as a party deputy secretary-general before his dismissal became official.
The fall of Ozawa in tandem with the resignation of Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio led to a lessening of the angst over policy making but did little to relieve the problem of who was in charge. The previously abolished DPJ policy research council was reestablished and attention paid to the lack of a formal strategy apparatus. However, the relationship between the party's policy research council and the national strategy office was not clarified. Not long after, the DPJ suffered a stunning setback in the House of Councillors election, eliminating the chance that the national strategy office could be raised to the status of a Bureau of the government, empowered to develop policy for all the ministries and agencies of the government.
It was in the period after the election that policy decision making truly became institutionally opaque. The DPJ policy research council existed, the National Strategy Unit existed -- but neither seemed to have a clear function. Instead all policy decision seemed to be arising out of the offices of the two most powerful personalities in government: Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito and DPJ Secretary-General Edano Yukio. Policy seemed to be whatever the last utterance of either man had been. That the new National Strategy minister was immediately embroiled in a tempest-in-a-teacup political finance scandal seemed only to further diminish the office.
The situation improved somewhat after the Cabinet shakeup in mid-September. Newly-installed Secretary-General Okada Katsuya had his hands full with party affairs, leaving policy making to newly-appointed National Strategy minister Gemba Koichiro, who at least had the double institutional punch of being simultaneously minister for national strategy and chairman of the DPJ policy research council. Sengoku, as the incumbent chief cabinet secretary, stood taller than his rivals -- and his grasp on the tiller of policy in no way shaken by the appointment of Gemba.
The absence of a formal structure was all too obvious. When in the afterglow of his victory in the party leadership election Prime Minister Kan announced that in his regime everyone's opinion would be respected, that there would be "a cabinet of 409" - the number of DPJ Diet legislators -- he expressing a nonsensical idea that nevertheless perilously reflected the prevailing institutional reality: that there was no one formally in charge of policy and that every opinion was equal -- with Sengoku Yoshito's opinion being more equal than others.
This week, however, National Strategy Minister Gemba announced a reorganization of the government's policy making system that seems to answer many of the questions of who exactly is supposed to be in charge of what in government.
Under the new plan, two officials remain responsible for policy making: the Chief Cabinet Secretary and the National Strategy Minister. Beneath the national strategy minister, the National Strategy Unit will be split into two divisions: one dedicated to the coordination and implementation of already promulgated government pledges and another dedicated to serve as a sort of think tank for the prime minister, focused on out-of-the-box thinking on national issues, particularly foreign policy and security issues.
More concretely, under Gemba's plan, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito and Office of the Deputy Chief Cabinet Minister will be in charge of:
- the move of the MCAS Futenma to a Futenma Replacement Facility
- tax system reform
- pension system reform
- the establishment of a national taxpayer I.D. number system
National Strategy Minister Gemba Koichiro and the National Strategy Unit will be in charge of:
- the promotion of Economic Partnership Agrements and the other trade and investment pacts
- providing a framework for the budget, including tax and fiscal policies
- implementing the National Growth Strategy
- implementing the policies necessary for meeting the national goals on climate change
The individual with direct responsibility for the management of these issues will be Cabinet Office Deputy Minister Hirano Tatsuo.
As for the prime minister's think tank, it will be headed by Cabinet Office Parliamentary Secretary Akutsu Yukihiko, holder of an M.A. from George Washington University who is considered Prime Minister Kan's close confidants and by Special Advisor to the Prime Minister Kato Koichi, an electrical engineer who used to work for Recruit.
The division of labor was done on the simplest of bases. Sengoku and his team of 100 have kept under their control the hardest issues the government is currently facing. The fuzzier, more ambitious and vague plans seem to have been handed off to Gemba and his people, who number no more than 30.
That the policies were divided into categories of hard/immediate versus soft/long term, and divvied out to the Chief Cabinet Secretary and the Minister of National Strategy Minister accordingly underlines that for all its formality, this is still an ad hoc arrangement. These issues are the problems now but what happens later? Can a issue transition from one side to the other? Based on what criteria will the transition take place? When a new issue arises, who gets it, and again, based on what criteria?
The division also makes clear that though Gemba may be the nominal minister of national strategy, the primus inter pares of national policy remains Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku. The extent to which he looms over policy is the stuff of tabloid dreams, where he is frequently posited to be the actual prime minister of the country. The Gemba proposal formalizes this dominance in the hard stuff, while establishing a set of second-tier issues not worthy of Sengoku's direct management.
So while Gemba's proposal offers greater clarity as to who is in charge of what right now -- which was a serious question, so it is good that he is proposing a solution -- it is still clearly only a temporary solution.
The meandering tale of the promulgation of Japan's national strategy under the DPJ meanders on -- with a little more clarity, to be sure.