“Iron Triangle” of Policymaking Persists Under DPJ Government


What is the process for deciding on policy in Japan? Who has the most power when it comes to determining policy—politicians, bureaucrats, or special interest groups?  This question was examined by numerous scholars during the long period of rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. Their research unearthed certain patterns.

Bureaucrats and Special Interests Still Hold Sway

Under the Policy Affairs Research Council of the LDP during its rule, committees were formed to address particular policy fields. Gathered around these committees were the bureaucrats handling matters, related special interest groups, and the so-called zoku giin (literally, tribe legislators), who had a vested interest in a given policy field. The policies were decided by these actors. Given Japan’s parliamentary cabinet system, legislators from the ruling party who form the cabinet are in charge of determining policy for each particular area. In this process of policy making, it was very rare for the government (cabinet) to run into opposition from other members of the ruling party. This meant that, for bureaucrats and special interest groups alike, the easiest way to have their preferred policies implemented was to influence the ruling-party politicians.

Along with the committees mentioned above, there is also the example of the LDP’s tax committee, responsible for deciding the content of each year’s revisions in the tax system. Given the enormous impact these revisions have on industry, groups representing specific industries have lobbied the influential politicians involved with the Research Commission on the Tax System time and time again.

Politicians looked to industry for monetary donations and votes. Industry responded by creating a machine for gathering these donations and votes. Bureaucrats provided politicians with the blueprints for policies, and control over industry was exercised through regulations and government subsidies.  Here we have, in a nutshell, the “iron triangle” between business, bureaucrats, and politicians.

The More Things Change . . .

The Democratic Party of Japan came to power by criticizing the cozy relationship that existed under LDP rule between the three points in the iron triangle just mentioned. This was symbolized by the DPJ’s slogan, “From concrete to people”—a criticism aimed at the close ties between Japan’s construction industry and LDP politics. The slogan played an important role in helping to bring about the regime change from the LDP to the DPJ.

But has there been a significant change in policymaking since the DPJ took over from the LDP it criticized? The answer is no. As time has progressed we have seen a reversion to the old, LDP-model of politics. This reversal violates the platform laid out in the DPJ election manifesto, leading to a steady decline in the DPJ government’s approval rating.

Granted, when it first came to power, the DPJ tried to break up the cozy relationship between business, bureaucrats, and politics, in favor of a system where politicians would be the policymakers. Toward that end, it formed a panel for budget screening (jigyō shiwake) that was successful in bringing an end to some wasteful spending in the public sector—an effort that won the government public praise. In the end, though, the DPJ proved no match for the counterattack launched by the bureaucracy, which could draw on the power of its own specialized knowledge, and gradually the bureaucracy gained hegemony over the policymaking process. In parallel with this development, industry also teamed up with the bureaucracy, and both parties are now snuggling up to DPJ legislators.

Public Looking Beyond the DPJ for Change

The drift back toward the old ways of the LDP has picked up more and more speed since the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. This was due to the DPJ’s lack of crisis-management skills, which left the government no choice but to rely on bureaucrats.  And industry is now swarming around the center of political power like ants on honey. The money and votes that these ants bring to the bargain are gradually becoming indispensable to the DPJ.

It is no surprise that the Japanese people feel disillusioned with a DPJ government that is putting in place the same cozy set of circumstances between politics, the bureaucracy, and industry that the LDP had relied on. The disenchantment with the DPJ has in turn swelled expectations for the young mayor of Osaka, Hashimoto Tōru, as a leader pledging to smash the status quo.

(Originally written in Japanese on March 21, 2012.)

Democratic Party of Japan Liberal Democratic Party DPJ LDP Hashimoto Toru Masuzoe Yōichi iron triangle political contributions budget screening parliamentary cabinet system zoku giin tribe legislators budget-screening panel Policy Affairs Research Council Tax Committee