Ending “Amakudari” Descent from Heaven at Last?


After it was revealed earlier in 2017 that the Ministry of Education was still systematically helping find new jobs for its retiring bureaucrats, the long-forbidden practice of amakudari (descent from heaven) for government officials is back in the headlines for the first time in years. At a time when more and more people are staying on the jobs until 65 instead of retiring at 60 as before, what options should there be for bureaucrats who want to keep working after leaving officialdom?

Ever since it was reported in March that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science and Technology (MEXT) was still systematically working to arrange postretirement jobs for its retiring bureaucrats, the old phrase amakudari (“descent from heaven”) has been splashed across Japanese newspaper headlines again for the first time in years. Surely I’m not the only person who feels like I’ve time-slipped back to the Japan of a quarter century ago.

“Bureaucrat Bashing”: The 1990s Scandals

There was time when government bureaucrats were viewed as Japan’s super elites. In those days becoming a member of that ultimate in meritocracies, the Ministry of Finance, or joining the byzantine cliques of Ministry of Foreign Affairs senior bureaucracy essentially meant that your future was guaranteed to the day you were lowered into your grave.

But that was then, and it has not been that way for a long time now. What triggered the dramatic collapse in the status of Japan’s bureaucrats were a series of shocking scandals in the 1990s. The one that most stunned the nation was the 1997–98 Ministry of Finance wining-and-dining scandal that led to 112 officials being disciplined, severely damaging the ministry’s credibility. The scandal triggered a sweeping review and reorganization of the country’s ministries and governmental agencies in 2001.

As the scandals spread, the previous clean image of Japan’s bureaucrats as the technocrats who had engineered Japan’s postwar rapid growth and social stability faded rapidly. Average citizens were at first stunned, then outraged, by the vast special privileges accorded to high-level bureaucrats that were being reported in the news daily, and “bureaucrat bashing” became the new norm. Virtually overnight the bureaucracy’s former lofty reputation was transformed into a simple formulation defining bureaucrats as evil. It was also during this time of revelations that the practice of bureaucrats being rehired for postretirement jobs by the very companies and organizations that they had regulated while still in office—a practice popularly known as amakudari (descent from heaven)—became a serious issue.

By the early 2000s a new critique of the bureaucracy had begun to emerge. In short, it argued that the essential nature of Japanese politics was “government by bureaucracy”—that it was the mandarins who were manipulating Japan’s elected leaders from the shadows. If the sorry state of politics in Japan was ever to change for the better, the argument went, it would be necessary to break the power of bureaucratic government. With the national mood swinging against them, more and more low- and mid-level government workers began leaving Kasumigaseki, that district in the heart of Tokyo that is home to most of Japan’s national bureaucratic apparatus, for work in the private sector.

I remember one official in his thirties explaining to me at the time, even as he insisted that he himself had no intention of leaving his ministry, the psychology of his colleagues who were putting the halls of power behind them.

“The money issue is huge,” he told me. “If you can make it to director general of a bureau, then you get a reasonable salary. But when you’re still young the pay is miserable. Sure, there’s cheap government housing, but it’s old and rundown. Back in the day, if your superiors thought you had prospects, you got taken out on the town and shown around, even if you were young. The ministry secretariat had stacks of photographs on file of the daughters of Japan’s captains of industry for omiai arranged marriages. So in that sense it didn’t really matter if your salary was a pittance, just so long as your wife’s family was rich. But then the salaries shrank even more, our social status plunged, and our value as marriage partners tumbled with it.”

“So,” he continued, “what do you think is going to happen now if you take away that last alluring ‘carrot’ of landing a cushy amakudari job after leaving public service? Of course the bureaucracy will bleed human resources. When ministry officials compare their  miniscule salaries with the money former colleagues are making after jumping ship for foreign financial institutions, they’ll feel like idiots for hanging on. Of course they’ll think it’s better to leave while still possible.”

Tightening the Screws on Amakudari and Watari

The standard practice at an average government ministry is to hire only around 20 new career-track bureaucrats each year. This leads naturally to high-stakes promotion battles for the coveted top posts. Even if you survive that infighting and make it to the top, the jockeying for advantage among that elite circle never ends.

For those who have reached the peak of that bureaucratic pyramid, the real payoff comes after leaving the ministry. Taking the Ministry of Finance as an example, the ideal pattern would be for a top ministry mandarin to take an amakudari post as the head of a regional bank, ultimately being appointed governor of the Bank of Japan or head of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. An official securing two or three top jobs like these could see a lifetime income in retirement allowances alone in the hundreds of millions of yen.

In 2008, however, came the sweeping reform of Japan’s National Civil Service Law specifically to address concerns about amakudari appointments and their spin-off practice—so-called watari, or migration—in which former bureaucrats would jump from one amakudari post to another to rack up even more retirement benefits.

Up until then, the only restriction on the books had been that for first two years after leaving a post in a government ministry or agency, government officials needed the permission of the National Personnel Authority to join a company that had had close contact with the ministry or agency where they had been working at the time.

The revised law changes all that. It restricts government officials from asking companies to hire serving or former government officials and from providing them with information about those officials. It forbids serving government officials from seeking employment with companies in sectors with which they had had interactions while in office, as well as preventing re-employed former government officials from making requests of or seeking favors from their former place of work in the government.

MEXT Brazens It Out

The brazen amakudari violations recently revealed at MEXT violated every aspect of these new restrictions in the revised National Civil Service Law. They resulted in disciplinary measures including the resignation or suspension of 43 ministry bureaucrats, then vice-minister Maekawa Kihei among them. The investigation clearly revealed that re-employment collusion was standard practice at the ministry. The final MEXT report issued on March 30, 2017, identified 62 such illegal acts. According to the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, 40 of those involved Shimanuki Kazuo, a former member of the ministry’s Personnel Division who had retired in 2009. Time and again Shimanuki had, on an individual basis, brokered jobs for departing bureaucrats at universities, foundations, and corporations. Yet there were also cases where the Personnel Division itself took the lead in finding jobs for retiring officials without going through Shimanuki at all.

How could these blatant violations have been allowed? One bureaucrat who used to serve in MEXT’s Personnel Division explained it to me this way:

“Originally the national universities were actually part of the Education Ministry organization, so if someone who put in time at the ministry landed a postretirement job at one of those schools it was seen as just a normal staff shuffle within the organization itself,” he explains. “The schools were taken out from under the ministry and relaunched as national university corporations in April 2004. But even after that, these postretirement deals between the ministry and the universities continued as before as part of the Personnel Division’s work. It was the same for private universities under the ministry’s jurisdiction. There was no consciousness at all within MEXT that this constituted amakudari and was illegal. It was just seen as business as usual, an extension of standard personnel transfers within the ministry.”

Certainly the attitude at MEXT, which was brazenly breaking the law of the land at a time when other ministries were complying with the new amakudari restrictions, was hardly normal. At other ministries, leadership and middle management had been severely shaken by the tightened restrictions on re-employment included in the 2001 reforms. That was true not only at ministries that had long enjoyed pipelines to industries offering a wealth of amakudari opportunities—such as the new Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (incorporating the former Ministry of Construction) or the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries—but even at so-called “white collar” ministries like the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry and the Ministry of Finance.

At both MOF and METI there had always been bureaucrats who received the proverbial “tap on the shoulder” signal to retire when they had still only reached the post of director. In the past, the pattern was to give these retirees a one-way ticket to a directorship at one of the ministry’s many independent administrative agencies or other attached semigovernmental bodies. I can remember as if it was yesterday seeing the faces of some of these officials turning white at the prospect of what the new restrictions meant for them.

Yet the situation was even more critical for the ministry’s “noncareer” bureaucrats, the nickname for government officials who have only passed one of the lower-level civil service exams instead of the top-tier examination. Indeed, one of the reasons that Japanese government ministries and agencies came to be burdened with so many associated independent agencies in the first place was to create places to park their cohorts of retiring noncareer bureaucrats back when the retirement age was still locked at 60. In those days career bureaucrats could find new jobs after retirement relatively easily, particularly if they were not so choosy about their next post. But this was not the case for their less-prestigious noncareer colleagues.

Now that the retirement age has been raised to 65, it should in theory be possible for noncareer bureaucrats to simply stay on at the ministries for another five years. Yet even that is not as easy as it sounds. I have heard that at one ministry they have had to create new offices and work simply to give their over-60 noncareer officials something to do.

Will a New Generation Place Duty First?

Many a time when I was reporting at government ministries on midwinter nights the buildings were so cold inside I thought I was going to freeze to death. Following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the subsequent nuclear disaster, conserving electricity became a top priority, and at a designated hour staff would go throughout the buildings turning off the heat and lights. Of course there were times when someone would stealthily turn them back on again the moment the enforcer was out of sight. Yet there was also a period when nothing was as usual, and you could walk past the door of a pitch-black office late at night and still hear the clicking of computer keyboards echoing from the unlit room. The young staff assigned to tomari night duty worked wrapped in layers of thick woolen blankets and kept sleeping bags suitable for camping on a winter mountaintop stuffed beneath their desks.

It may be true, as some have suggested, that it has become harder to attract the best and the brightest to Kasumigaseki now that the old prerogatives and privileges have disappeared. Yet I like to think that this new generation of bureaucrats has chosen to join the ministries knowing full well when they did so that all those perks were a thing of the past. Perhaps I will sound like a naive idealist if I suggest that perhaps now we can finally hope for a bureaucratic corps that is ready from the bottom of their hearts to give their all for the good of their nation. Yet idealist or not, I do want to trust their fundamental decency.

Let the Private Sector Find the Jobs

Former bureaucrat Endō Hiromichi resigned from MEXT while he was still in his thirties. As he puts it, “I wanted to change the situation we’re in today, where Kasumigaseki decides policy for the entire nation.” With several associates he established the policy-oriented Aoyama Shachu Corporation think tank. Following eight years of activities there, in April 2017 he became head of education for Kumamoto City. “I want to help Kumamoto rebuild after the devastating 2016 earthquakes,” Endō explains. “I’m going to put all my energy into strengthening the education administration system there now that Kumamoto’s been made an ordinance-designated city.”(*1)

I decided to ask the iconoclastic Endō how he though we should solve the re-employment issue for civil servants. His answer? The same way you handle any job change.

“If retired civil servants find new jobs where they can put their work experience to use, it benefits both the individuals and society as a whole,” Endō says. “But civil servants looking for new work should use job-hunting websites, headhunters, or even the government’s Hello Work employment service centers just like everybody else does. If a civil servant has put in enough time on the job, then he or she should also have set aside enough savings to pay a good agent to help find a new employer. If job placement for former civil servants was shifted completely to the private sector, I predict we’d soon see new companies specializing exclusively in placing ex-bureaucrats.”

At the same time, though, Endō says it is essential to completely review the existing regulations. To take just one example, he points to the current Cabinet Personnel Affairs Bureau prohibition against civil servants seeking employment with companies that were under their jurisdiction while they were in office. This is vague and ineffective, he notes, because it applies only to the applicant’s most recent governmental post, not to previous positions as well.

In my opinion, I believe that in addition to thoroughly reviewing the existing regulations and eliminating ambiguities like the above, it is also important to clarify the regulations to ensure that approvals and permits, subsidies, and other favors provided to companies while in the civil service never turn into de facto payoffs for postretirement jobs in the future. Perhaps this latest recurrence of the age-old amakudari issue is the perfect chance to squeeze the last bit of corruption out of Kasumigaseki.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 11, 2017. Banner photo: Education Minister Matsuno Hirokazu apologizes at a press conference after a Cabinet Office Re-employment Surveillance Commission investigation revealed the MEXT amakudari job-placement scandal. © Jiji Press.)

(*1) ^ Cities designated by government ordinance are municipalities with populations of at least 500,000 that have been delegated various educational, welfare, urban planning, and other functions that are ordinarily handled by prefectures.—Ed.

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