Nicole Takeda

Amakudari: Japan’s Fallen Angel

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Letters From Asia

Radiation continues to spew into the air and sea from the Daiichi nuclear power plant after its cooling system was knocked out by the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and its protective sea wall was swallowed up by the ensuing tsunami. Although Prime Minister Kan has shown utter ineptness at handling the nuclear crisis in the past four months**, it would be unfair to hold him and his newly elected party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) accountable for the accident. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who ruled almost continuously for 54 years, caused this crisis because of the symbiotic relationship they nurtured between government ministries and the business sector during their reign.

Government bureaucrats have to endure slave-like working conditions and modest salaries during their years of civic service. Once they reach their fifties, they have to compete for the few senior positions in the upper echelons of their ministry. For those who do not get one of these positions, they are “retired” into private companies or quasi-government entities that are usually associated with the ministry. These lucrative positions are a way to “compensate” them for their years of servitude. This long-standing business practice is known as amakudari, or “descent from heaven”. This practice is not only a way of rewarding these bureaucrats, but also used to build consensus between government ministries and the business world. In other words, the placement of these former government officials in private sector enterprises allows the ministry to protect and extend its influence over sectors of the economy. Amakudari officials become de facto lobbyists who can avoid bureaucratic red tape because they have a direct line of communication with their former ministry. At the same time, those companies with amakudari executives have direct access to the legislative process, which gives them a heads up on laws and ordinances affecting their sector**. It is precisely this relationship between the public and private sector that led to the Fukushima nuclear fallout.

The low seawalls in front of the Daiichi plant failed to protect the backup generators that were needed to cool the reactor’s core. The tsunami crashed through the walls with relative ease and flooded these ground-level generators. Many Japanese and Western experts have questioned the decisions that put the plant’s most essential emergency equipment in harm’s way**. The foundation for such decisions to be made at Tokyo Electric, the utilities company running the Fukushima Daiichi plant, was laid by amakudari relationships. Take for example the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). This is Japan’s nuclear industry watchdog, which is actually part of the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry (METI). It is not an independent regulatory body like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) with its staff of industrial experts and engineers in the United States. Rather, bureaucrats transfer between METI and NISA during the careers, and then “retire” to private sector utility companies. It is no surprise that there is no clear division between promoting the nuclear industry and regulating it.

Such relationships have come to light from Shiokawa Tetsuya, a member of the Japanese Communist Party, who evealed in a survey that Tokyo Electric reserves its vice presidency for high-ranking bureaucrats from the METI, as well as other executive positions for these officials since the 1960s. Ishida Toru, the former head of the METI Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, has held an advisory position at TEPCO since January 2011. Normally, Ishida would have become vice president later this year. However, he was forced to step down in April amidst allegations of amakudari. Moreover, over 68 retired officials from METI have parachuted into positions at the country’s twelve utility companies since the 1960s, and five of them landed at Tokyo Electric. At the moment, thirteen retired METI bureaucrats received their executive positions at these electricity suppliers through amakudari**.

More disturbing, NISA regulators granted the Daiichi plant a 10-year extension just prior to the earthquake. Apparently, regulators don’t even follow their own agency’s 40-year statutory limit for nuclear plants. Even from the onset, safety has never seemed to be a top priority among Tokyo Electric executives, government officials and regulators. One of the plant’s worst incidents occurred when a fuel rod fell into the reactor and caused a chain reaction in 1978. More seriously, the plant was allowed to continue operating from 2000 to 2002 during an investigation that eventually revealed that executives had falsified 29 safety reports about cracks in the reactor cores during the 1980s and 90s**. The president and vice-president had to resign to take responsibility for the misconduct, but were then reinstated as advisors just less than two weeks after they stepped down from their positions!** Any wrongdoing in the nuclear power industry is not even met with a slap on the wrist. Amakudari has become so entrenched into Japan’s political system that NISA is simply a watchdog without any teeth.

Former prime ministers have attempted to put an end to amakudari, but their initiatives have been in vain because the political system depends on the bureaucrats, rather than the politicians, to make policy. The politicians may seem to be the main actors, but they are actually just supporting actions on Japan’s political stage. Even if politicians tried to legislate amakudari, bureaucrats could hold up the process for years in administrative red tape. Politicians also fear that prohibiting retiring bureaucrats from taking high-paying positions will discourage graduates from entering the low-paying civil service.

Curbing amakudari doesn’t seem to be a likely solution to ensure transparency in Japan’s nuclear industry. However, Prime Minister Kan said that the government would try to break METI’s grip of NISA through setting up a Nuclear Safety Agency, an independent body of nuclear experts, before April of next year. However, there have only been vague suggestions about actually separating NISA from METI**. Separating NISA form METI will not guarantee transparency as long as amakudari is still in play, and NISA as an independent body will only lead to bickering with the new agency over administrative jurisdiction. METI’s far-reaching influence over the government bureaucracy and the business sector will make any attempt to set up an independent regulatory body to be a long-drawn-out affair that will likely lead to water-downed compromise leaving any nuclear watchdog with a pair of dentures rather than a set of teeth that could really bite wrongdoers.

Japan’s next mega-quake will likely implode the Japanese archipelago if such compromises are made on nuclear safety, but that doesn’t seem concern the government, the bureaucracy, and the nuclear power industry.

Image Copyright © 2011 · africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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2 comments
John Uchikura
John Uchikura

Great article Nicole! The only thing I wonder about is the "low pay" of civil servants and your assertion that politicians fear that "prohibiting retiring bureaucrats from taking high-paying positions will discourage graduates from entering the low-paying civil service." When students are graduating from university, I do not get the impression that they are counting on amakudari to make for a rosy retirement for them if they are interested in getting into the civil service. Moreover, it is almost distressing to see the number of people who wish to get civil service jobs simply because it pays relatively well, has good benefits and is more stable than most other jobs out there. From everything I have heard, competition for civil service jobs is amongst the highest of any occupation. They may not get paid nearly as much pay as the politicians, but it certainly is not low compared to the average Joe out there working for a company.

Corinne Toffan
Corinne Toffan

This reminds me of an article I read when I was in Japan. The minister of health was talking about how there was no proof that smoking causes cancer. What killed me was that Japan Tobacco was under his ministry. To this day, I really can't understand how a tobacco company was put in the Ministry of Health. I would love someone to explain the logic of that. :-)