Slices of Japanese business, politics and life
If there is one thing you can be sure of when it comes to Japanese bureaucrats, it is that they work long hours. When parliament is in session, they’re handling urgent questions or requests from lawmakers all the time, and I’ve heard some say they hardly remember seeing the sun when parliament is sitting.
But new Finance Minister Naoto Kan has come up with a plan to review the work styles of sleep-deprived bureaucrats, saying he wants to make it possible for finance ministry staff to go on dates on weeknights.
Government ministries have tried before to get bureaucrats to go home sooner. Wednesdays are “leave the office on time” day for all ministries and an announcement encourages everyone to get out at 6:15 P.M. At the finance ministry, senior officials are encouraged to tell younger team members to leave early if it’s not busy.
Some say such efforts have helped them shorten their work hours a bit, but the ideal of an eight-hour working day is still a long way off. As one bureaucrat put it: “In the end, we just have too much to do.”
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.
Historic is usually a word that makes my skin crawl when I see it in the news. Journalists are prone to overuse it, so when I saw it in our election stories I had to stop myself deleting it — because this election truly is historic.
The Liberal Democratic Party had never lost an election since its founding in 1955. Even when it lost power for a few months in 1993/94, it was because of LDP lawmakers defecting rather than an election loss.