Liberal democracies ensure that citizens, politicians and bureaucrats will interact throughout lawmaking and that no single player will be entirely dominant or autonomous from the rest. Citizens control politicians through elections, the latter control bureaucrats through budgets and mechanisms of oversight, yet bureaucrats are usually exempt from any control when it not only enforces the law (and with great discretion here in Japan) but also when the framing of a law is delegated to them. This is truer in Japan, where bureaucrats are often in tandem with voters and politicians, rather than completely subordinated to the wills of the latter. This adds a layer of complexity to Japanese lobbyists as they must take bureaucrats into consideration for their winning bid. It is crucial to reach out to the bureaucracy if any lobbying endeavor is to be carried out here in Japan.
Lobbyists can influence the government during the three stages of the policy process— agenda-setting, decision-making and implementation. To do this, they have to take into consideration, at any stage of the policy-cycle, both the image-framing of an issue (how an issue is to be framed to the intended receiver) and the venue in which the pressure is to be exercised (venue-shopping). It is essential that interest groups remain strategic (cost-efficient) and that they carefully choose where, when and what message to convey to the administration.
Although most of the legislation is introduced in the Diet by the cabinet, the reality is that bills brought by cabinet members are actually formulated within bureaucratic agencies. The expansion of a bureaucratic policy-making style has been mainly due to two factors: (i) the declining role of the Diet’s legislative role and (ii) the increasing reliance on ministerial directives and communications. If the Diet’s legislative role has been declining ever since the LDP has had a guaranteed majority, we are able to observe the declining importance of lobbying at the decision-making stage and the increasing importance of the agenda-setting and implementation stages; stages where the bureaucracy enjoys extensive leeway.
The agenda-setting process of a bill within the bureaucracy follows three simple steps: (i) it sets a policy objective brought to its attention following implementation failures or feedback by groups of citizens, businesses or interest groups. The role of interest groups here is essential as the bureaucracy needs to be convinced that a policy objective is worth following in the first place and that they can depart from their previously conceived ministerial interest (省益-shoeki). Then, (ii) it studies different policy alternatives to reach an objective by following an intra-ministry discussion. Lastly, (iii) the bureaucracy then proceeds to seek policy coordination with other ministries, politicians, affected industries, unions and interest groups in order to draft a bill. This last stage usually happens within Advisory Committees, where bureaucrats are provided with the necessary skills, information and the positions of the different sectors of society involved.
Additionally, and external to this process, bureaucrats consult interest groups through deliberation councils (審議会-shingikai)—there exists around 200 of them—, providing a great opportunity for lobbyists to move the initial legislation position to their benefit during the policy development process.
However, it is to be expected that much of the contents of a bill will already be determined by political elites (from middle-level administrative units to cabinet ministers) in what is termed as ‘consensus-building’ (根回し-nemawashi), regularly giving a greater role to informal politics instead of the clear-cut formal process. Nevertheless, even though informal politics are very important (informal strategies are to be expected): deliberation councils and advisory committees remain venues where sectional interests can be valued and leveraged by the bureaucracy. Once a common position is reached with government officials, bills are passed to the LDP’s Policy Affairs Research Council (政務調査会-seimu chosakai) and dealt internally within the party, before it finally reaches the Diet.
Bureaucrats have sole authority when implementing laws. The administration and interpretation of laws is a huge power of the Japanese bureaucracy. As we know from the realm of political science, no decision, no interpretation, no administration is politically neutral and has different outcomes on different groups in society. Tilting a ministerial ordinance or directive in one way or another can have tremendous impacts in the regulatory market, which is precisely why pressure groups need to guide the responsible bureaus to curve the legal grey areas in their favor. Interest groups need to provide smoke-detectors, that is information and feedback that is not available to the implementers. This can be done either in anticipation to implementation effects or once a grey area appears.
In a country where governments are rarely stable, maintaining a contact within the bureaucracy is a much more profitable and sustainable asset since they permanently maintain their position of influence within the policy-process, irrespective of electoral and government developments. Lobbyists are required to keep close contact and be very familiar with the ministries. It is no surprise that academia has usually termed Japan as The United Ministries of Japan, meaning that the distinction between politics and administration is not that all clear in Japanese politics.
Any change since the National Public Service Law (2014)?
Prime Minister Abe, who has had the honor or being one the longest serving PMs in Japanese history, has undertaken the biggest reform affecting bureaucrats and civil servants since the Postwar-era: the 2014 National Public Service Law. The LDP wanted to curve the power of bureaucrats in policy-making by making the latter the subordinates of elected officials.
Political principals, under this law, are able to effectively control and monitor the actions of career bureaucrats so as to avoid any policy drift. The way it accomplishes it is through the appointment process, in which a newly established Bureau of Personnel Affairs (under the authority of the PM) directly manages the administration of civil servants. The minister also appoints a bigger number of top ministry positions allowing him to bring more compliant officials from other ministries and even people from the private sector.
Additionally, senior bureaucrats who were formally arranged employment by the ministry in other companies (天下り-amakudari) are now barred from doing so. However, one of the biggest criticisms of this reform was that it attempted to hinder bureaucrats’ power by changing the appointment system only. For the policy-making process follows a bottom-up process, it can be said that bureaucrats still retain most authority in the agenda-setting and implementation process after the reform, even though politicians have had a more active role in ministries by departing from their previous role as simple rubberstamps.
Why a government affairs team is necessary
A successful lobbying strategy has to start with policy-framing and a decision on which venues to tackle. Echoing public concerns, with surveys and reports, is always a safe bet to approach bureaucrats (and legislators) at any stage of the policy-cycle. For example, this can be done in either government-sponsored conferences or by interacting with the most relevant officials in the ministry so that you are able to move their initial policy position to your advantage. However, foreign companies in Japan are often surprised how complicated access to the bureaucracy is (a much more complicated process than contacting politicians): a meeting is simply not enough. A simple meeting with a government official means nothing and will probably hamper future opportunities to collaborate with them as well as the company’s credibility.
Moreover, foreign companies can be restricted by domestic legislation. In order to pursue effective lobbying efforts, it is imperative to understand Japan’s unique regulatory rules and dynamics to the policy-making process. As your trusted partner, Langley Esquire can serve as your guide to public policy in Japan.