Slices of Japanese business, politics and life
Unknown territory for bureaucrats and media
Japan’s new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, whose Democratic Party scored a historic victory in last month’s election, wants to radically change how the country is run and in particular reduce bureaucrats’ control over formulating policy.
And his government has taken a symbolic approach – it has decided to ban top bureaucrats from holding news conferences to explain its policy stance. The Hatoyama government has also abolished twice-weekly meetings of top bureaucrats, which have discussed, coordinated and decided policy agendas before cabinet meetings so that cabinet ministers can rubber stamp them. Naoto Kan, the new deputy prime minister, has dubbed the so-called vice ministers’ meetings “the bid-rigging meetings” of bureaucrats.
I covered Japan’s Finance Ministry for nearly 10 years and I now cover other departments such as the Foreign Ministry. Each ministry is different, but usually vice ministers hold press conferences Mondays and Thursdays to clarify the ministry’s stance on the development of policy-making as well as technical and historical background. In addition, there are many different types of press briefings by ministry officials of various ranks. Those are all in addition to regular news conferences by cabinet ministers every Tuesday and Friday. Yes, there are a lot of press opportunities here – maybe too many.
Still, as soon as the Hatoyama government decided to allow only lawmakers — namely cabinet ministers and their deputies – to hold news conferences on policy ideas, reporters started to ask lots of “what if” questions.
“What if we want details on a disaster or the spread of the new H1N1 flu immediately when there is a new development?”, “What if ministers are not available right away or not fully aware enough of technical issues to be able to answer reporters’ questions, as has been the case in the past?”
Similar questions dominated the first news conference by Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano, Japan’s top government spokesman, just hours after the government was formed on Wednesday. Even a few days later, Hatoyama, Hirano and other cabinet ministers were still being repeatedly asked to clarify their stance on media access. The widely circulated Yomiuri newspaper on Friday questioned the government’s approach in its editorial ”Muzzling bureaucrats might be step too far“, saying restricting press conferences would make the policy-making process less transparent.
The government has stressed that it has no intention to hinder freedom of speech and that as long as bureaucrats get approval from their minister, they can brief reporters on facts and technical background. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, for one, is considering changing the format of his press conferences to give access to a broader range of media outlets.
But the whole debate got bureaucrats worried about getting into trouble, holding off and cancelling some regular news conferences by ranking officials this week. “Maybe this will be my last conversation with you,” one official jokingly said to me.
“We are entering the realm of the unknown,” Hatoyama said as he took office following the landslide election victory that ousted the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled most of the past half-century. Well, I guess that’s true for bureaucrats and reporters, too.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Pool