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Japan’s Politically Empty Suits

Who is more important, the prime minister of Japan or his bureaucrats?

April 6, 2000

Who is more important, the prime minister of Japan or his bureaucrats?

That Japan’s financial markets held steady following the collapse of the country’s prime minister, Keizo Obuchi, is remarkable — particularly after the government withheld news about the seriousness of Mr. Obuchi’s condition for several hours. Just imagine the reaction of Wall Street if it were suddenly disclosed that President Clinton had become incapacitated — and his underlings had kept that fact hidden!

But Japanese investors know a little secret that the rest of the world may not be privy to — and that is that the country’s prime ministers really don’t matter all that much. Consider Mr. Obuchi. Before a stroke on April 2 left him in a coma, he had led the country for only 20 months. In most governments, he would just have been getting started. But, by Japan’s historical standards, Mr. Obuchi was already nearing the end of his term of office.

Since Japan’s democratic government was created after World War II, its head of government — the prime minister — has held onto his office for an average of only 23 months. Its 26 different prime ministers means that, except for Italy, Japan has had more leadership changes than any other industrialized country. (The United States, for example, has had nine different presidents since World War II, and Germany has had only seven chancellors.)

That is very little time at the top for any single leader to make his mark. Yet, in spite of this revolving door of Japanese leadership, the country still managed to build the world’s second largest economy in the decades after the War. How? Because the country depends far less on who is nominally in charge than it does on its rank-and-file bureaucrats — particularly those in powerful Finance Ministry and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

While the country’s political factions take turns elevating their daimyo into the prime minister’s office, it is the bureaucrats who debate, make, and execute public policy. Prime ministers merely put their seals on the papers that pass over their desks — while making sure the various constituencies get a piece of the government’s action. The system itself seems to run on cruise control.

Frequent leadership changes were never a problem in the rapid growth decades following the War. But during the past ten years of economic malaise, half a dozen prime ministers have come and gone and the economy is still sputtering. Of course, Japan’s politicians have been running on empty for decades — and Japanese citizens seem to have lost faith in their ability a long time ago.