The Direction of Contemporary Japanese Politics

The Role of the Kantei in Making Policy


The Prime Minister’s Official Residence, known as the Kantei, can be thought of as Japan’s answer to the White House: it serves as both home and headquarters to the nation’s chief executive, and its name is a metonym for that top government office. But until relatively recently, a powerful bureaucracy and a tradition of decentralized decision making, added to the inherent constraints of Japan’s parliamentary system, had reduced the Kantei to little more than an onlooker in the actual policymaking process. Makihara Izuru traces the development of “Kantei leadership,” from the dawn of the LDP’s hegemony in 1955 to the present.

In recent years the role of the prime minister’s office in policymaking has been an enduring theme in media coverage of Japanese politics. This focus on forceful leadership from the Kantei, as the prime minister’s official residence and offices are known, was particular intense during the administration of Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō (April 2001–September 2006), who electrified the nation by appointing cabinet members in defiance of his own party’s powerful faction leaders and pushing through controversial reforms over the objections of key government agencies and ministries.

Of course, no prime minister can make policy single-handedly. At the Kantei, a large permanent staff lays the groundwork for decision making through information gathering, policy analysis, and clerical and administrative support of every type. Technically referred to as the Cabinet Secretariat, this organization currently numbers more than 800 regular employees, many of them assigned to various policymaking “headquarters” within the cabinet (including the Headquarters for Japan’s Economic Revitalization, established by the new administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō in December 2012). The Kantei today is empowered to formulate a response to any and all of the key political issues facing the prime minister and the cabinet.

It has not always been thus. As part of the massive constitutional and administrative overhaul imposed by the Allied Occupation after World War II, the Cabinet Secretariat was established as a tiny unit consisting merely of the chief cabinet secretary and the prime minister’s secretaries. The rest of the prime minister’s support typically came from units (“offices”) set up under the Sōrifu (Prime Minister’s Office), the portfolio then assigned to the prime minister as “first among equals” in the cabinet. But the powers and capabilities of the Cabinet Secretariat grew over the years. Then in 2001, as part of a major reorganization of central government, the secretariat was accorded general planning authority, opening the way for its emergence as a vast organization empowered and equipped to draft concrete policies.

This growth process mirrors the evolution of the prime minister’s leadership role over the past few decades. Pressure for change began to build during the second half of the twentieth century, as international summit diplomacy facilitated comparison with other heads of government and highlighted the weakness of the Japanese prime minister—particularly in comparison with the president of the United States, Japan’s ally. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the government was under intense pressure to follow the lead of Japan’s global corporations in replacing the cumbersome, bottom-up, consensus-building model of management of old with a more agile top-down decision-making process adapted to a rapidly changing world. In this sense, the emergence of a stronger prime minister and better-equipped Kantei might be seen as a product of the always-tense give-and-take between the nation’s political and economic leaders.

In the following, I examine this historical process in greater detail with a view to shedding light on the meaning of “Kantei leadership” under the new LDP cabinet of Abe Shinzō.

The Era of One-Party Dominance

When the Allied Occupation of Japan came to an end in September 1951, the postwar Japanese government faced the challenge of managing affairs of state under a brand new Constitution without the benefit of instructions from Occupation headquarters. Without the support of the Occupation forces, the cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru faltered. Politicians previously purged from public life because of their prewar or wartime role had staged an electoral comeback in both houses of the Diet. New laws gave more power to the Diet, allowing members to submit bills. The bureaucrats wielded their technical expertise in an effort to squelch the politicians’ initiative, while the politicians threatened to decimate the bureaucratic ranks with sweeping administrative reforms. This institutional power struggle defined Japanese politics and government in the 1950s.

In 1955, the two feuding branches of the Japan Socialist Party reunited, and Japan’s conservative forces merged to form the Liberal Democratic Party. Although the conservative merger was in large part a reaction to developments on the left, it was also intended to settle the aforementioned institutional power struggles once and for all. The result was the so-called 1955 system, under which the LDP progressively consolidated power, while the JSP settled into the role of perennial opposition. Under the 1955 system, LDP rule continued uninterrupted for 38 years, until the rise of an anti-LDP coalition cabinet in 1993.

It was during this period of uninterrupted LDP rule, as the bureaucracy took an increasingly active role in policymaking, that the need for a “stronger cabinet” emerged as a recurring theme of administrative reform. The third cabinet of Prime Minister Hatoyama Ichirō (November 1955–December 1956) made the first moves in that direction at the initiative of Kōno Ichirō, minister of the (now defunct) Administrative Management Agency. Kōno’s stated goal was to enhance the leadership role of the nation’s “top management,” by which he meant the prime minister and his cabinet ministers. In regard to the former, Kōno elevated the prime minister’s support apparatus, the Cabinet Secretariat, to the position of undisputed “control tower” in charge of policy coordination and mediation among the cabinet ministries, superseding the Prime Minister’s Office. To strengthen the leadership of the other ministers, he proposed augmenting the number of high-level ministry officials answerable to them. Kōno’s original plan would have given each ministry additional parliamentary vice-ministers—Diet politicians appointed as aides to a cabinet minister—plus a new civil-service post directly under the administrative vice-minister. In its final form, the plan allotted additional parliamentary vice-ministers only to the Ministries of Finance, International Trade and Industry, and Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries and installed a “director of the minister’s secretariat” (a post already in existence, though only at few select agencies) at every ministry as the second-ranking civil servant under the administrative vice-minister.

This move to expand the support apparatuses directly under the prime minister and his cabinet ministers continued off and on under the 1955 system, peaking with the administration of Nakasone Yasuhiro (November 1982–November 1987). As the leader of a minor LDP faction, Nakasone had been obliged to forge an alliance with the dominant Tanaka faction in order to assume leadership of the party. Resolved to exercise strong executive leadership nonetheless, he used his own advisory panels, private councils, and think tanks to build support for his own policies outside the Diet, circumventing the party apparatus. In addition, he sought to bolster executive leadership by strengthening the Kantei. Adopting the recommendations of the Second Extraordinary Administrative Research Council, which he himself directed as minister of the Administrative Management Agency under the previous administration of Suzuki Zenkō (July 1980–November 1982), Nakasone expanded the Cabinet Secretariat by adding two “cabinet councilors’ offices,” one for internal affairs and another for external affairs. To head the newly beefed-up Cabinet Secretariat as chief cabinet secretary, he chose bureaucrat-turned-politician Gotōda Masaharu, a former head of the National Police Agency known for his crisis-management and intelligence-gathering prowess. With Gotōda’s help, he asserted the authority of the Cabinet Secretariat and its chief—and by extension, that of the prime minister—over the other cabinet ministries and agencies. With the help of private consultants, Nakasone also used the mass media to maximum effect. In this way, he leveraged both the official staff of the Cabinet Secretariat and an unofficial team of private advisors to strengthen the Kantei’s hand in the decision-making process.

Such developments notwithstanding, ministry bureaucrats remained at the center of the policymaking process during most of this period. The LDP’s factions and policymaking apparatus weighed and conveyed the competing demands of their key constituencies, while the party’s top three officials under the president (secretary general, chairman of the Policy Affairs Research Council, and chairman of the Executive Council) ironed out conflicts between ministries. This approach functioned adequately thanks to the expanding economy, which had resumed its heady growth once it had weathered energy crises of the 1970s. It was easy to satisfy or mollify various interest groups by drawing from an ever-expanding pool of resources. Free from the necessity of tough allocation decisions, the government had little need to exert strong top-down leadership. As a result, it continued to place priority on the policymaking capabilities of each ministry rather than those of the Kantei.

The Years of Coalition Government

In 1993, a split within the LDP paved the way for the first non-LDP administration in 38 years. In August that year the House of Representatives passed a no-confidence resolution against the cabinet of Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi (November 1991–August 1993). In the general election that followed, the LDP failed to secure a majority of lower house seats, opening the way for a coalition of eight parties and parliamentary groupings under Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro (August 1993–April 1994). Thus began a period of changing multiparty coalitions and alliances. In the absence of a secure Diet majority, the prime minister was obliged to set policy in consultation with the heads of his coalition partners. Meanwhile, with the end of the Cold War and the rise of a global economy, Japan faced an urgent need for agile, top-down policymaking to respond to a changing international environment. A major expansion and upgrade of the Kantei organization was inevitable.

The first administration to address this need was that of Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryūtarō (January 1996–July 1998). Personally presiding over the Administrative Reform Council, charged with the reorganization of central government, Hashimoto pushed for a more powerful Kantei and fewer cabinet agencies and ministries in order to speed resolution of turf battles within the bureaucracy. After agreeing on the need for extra-ministerial policymaking mechanisms, the council drew up a plan to significantly expand the powers of the Cabinet Secretariat, create top-level advisory organs (such as the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy) in which cabinet ministers could consult with experts from the private sector, appoint special ministers of state to coordinate policy on key issues, and create a mechanism for active policy coordination between the Cabinet Secretariat, the special ministers, and the ministries. The reforms went into effect in January 2001.

The Koizumi Cabinet

LDP maverick Koizumi Jun’ichirō took office in April 2001, shortly after the Hashimoto reforms came into effect, and he took full advantage of the new Kantei organization.

Under the reorganization, the Cabinet Secretariat was accorded new planning powers in addition to its existing role in coordinating policy. Prior to the 2001 reorganization, basic procedure assigned the job of drafting new policies to the individual ministries and agencies; on paper, at least, the Cabinet Secretariat’s role was simply to work out a compromise in the event of conflicts with other ministries. Now, with its new planning authority, the secretariat was empowered to draft its own policies and even shut down objections from the ministries in the name of carrying out the basic policies of the prime minister and the cabinet.

For this purpose, a number of policymaking “headquarters” were set up within the cabinet under the general management of the Cabinet Secretariat and staffed with bureaucrats culled from various cabinet ministries and agencies. As a consequence, the staff of the Cabinet Secretariat mushroomed under the Koizumi cabinet, swelling from about 200 prior to the reorganization to more than 800. To oversee policy coordination between the Cabinet Secretariat, ministries, and councils in the area of economic and fiscal policy, Koizumi tapped one of his own trusted aides, a Finance Ministry official who had served for a long period as Koizumi’s secretary in the prime minister’s office. For internal affairs, a deputy chief cabinet secretary (also a bureaucrat) with over five years’ experience in the post performed the role of general coordinator.

Second, the role of the cabinet ministers underwent important changes at this time. Koizumi departed decisively from established LDP practice by appointing his ministers on the strength of their abilities and qualifications, rather than assigning cabinet posts on the basis of factional strength and seniority. Having done so, he expected his ministers to make full use of their abilities. The biggest test of their skills was probably the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy newly established under the cabinet. Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy Takenaka Heizō played the leading role on the council. Communicating closely with the Kantei to ascertain the wishes of the prime minister, he proceeded to control the council’s agenda by submitting one issue paper after another with the help of the council’s private-sector experts. The regular cabinet ministers present had to join the debate with both their individual ministries’ policies and the cabinet’s basic goals in mind. Gone were the days when a cabinet minister could get by delivering statements and papers prepared for him by bureaucrats.

Kantei leadership also played a key role in foreign policy under the Koizumi cabinet. After a series of blunders by Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko early on, Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda Yasuo formed a Kantei foreign policy team, which helped engineer the administration’s prompt enlistment in the US government’s war on terror following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Finally, Koizumi’s top-down leadership was supported by high public approval ratings, the result in large part by his skilled use of the media to project a uniquely appealing public persona. Koizumi’s longtime aide Iijima Isao played a central role orchestrating this highly effective public relations strategy. The success of Koizumi’s five-year tenure (a long run by recent standards) owed much to a talented and dedicated Kantei team, including unofficial advisors as well as the official staff of the Cabinet Secretariat.

Abe, Fukuda, and Asō

Unfortunately, succeeding LDP administrations veered from the trail Koizumi had blazed. Both Abe Shinzō in his first stab at leadership (September 2006–September 2007), Fukuda Yasuo (September 2007–September 2008), and Asō Tarō (September 2008–September 2009) stumbled in three key areas: the Cabinet Secretariat, cabinet appointments, and unofficial staff.

The Cabinet Secretariat had grown so large and complex under Koizumi that a newly installed prime minister was at a loss to navigate it. From the standpoint of executive leadership, the ideal would have been to disband all the cabinet headquarters and reconstitute them in keeping with the priorities of the new cabinet, building up the organization gradually. However, as long as the LDP continued in power, each administration was obliged to take on the agenda of the previous one. This became an insurmountable obstacle during the waning years of LDP rule, as each succeeding leader struggled to dispose of his predecessor’s unfinished business even while pursuing his cabinet’s own agenda.

Among the pending problems weighing down the government at this time were serious issues of internal inefficiency and corruption, including the pension scandal. Born of structural problems that had taken root during decades of uninterrupted LDP rule, these were issues that neither the Kantei nor the individual ministries could adequately resolve in a short time, and they continued to weigh on successive cabinets.

Abe created further problems for himself by making key Cabinet Secretariat appointments without regard for the secretariat’s customary personnel practices. These appointments undermined the Kantei’s ability to coordinate and mediate among the government’s high-ranking bureaucrats, and because a system of this sort is very difficult to reinstate once it has broken down, the succeeding Fukuda and Asō cabinets were unable to rebuild the Kantei’s coordinating capabilities.

Koizumi’s successors also erred in their selection of cabinet ministers. Unlike Koizumi, they allowed their cabinet appointments to be guided by intraparty politics instead of the candidates’ individual ability and experience. A succession of scandals plagued the Abe cabinet in particular, but in all three administrations, the appointment of poorly qualified ministers resulted in blunders, setbacks, erosion of public support, and an increasingly dysfunctional cabinet.

Finally, neither Abe, Fukuda, nor Asō managed to assemble the kind of talented media-savvy staff that had helped create Koizumi’s appealing public persona, and this—more even than any basic failure of leadership—is why they lost the public’s support and confidence so quickly. Another contributing factor was the rapid spread of the new media during the period in question. The new technology enabled almost anyone to capture candid video images of politicians and transmit them over the Internet in minutes or even seconds. With such a small margin of error, few politicians could have created and maintained the kind of charismatic image on which Koizumi had built his popularity.

Amid these struggles, the LDP suffered a major defeat in the House of Councillors election in July 2007, which cost the ruling coalition its upper house majority. In the absence of strong leadership from the Kantei, the cabinet was in no position to tackle the new issues facing the nation with a divided Diet. So it was that the Democratic Party of Japan was able to seize control of the government in 2009.

The Kantei’s Role Following a Change of Government

The LDP reclaimed a majority in the House of Representatives in December 2012 and ousted the DPJ, but a new era of long-term dominance by a single party seems unlikely any time soon. Faced with the prospect of an imminent change in government, recent cabinets have organized the Kantei with a view to quick results. But strong Kantei leadership requires a massive, complex organization. Moreover, constant preoccupation with the next election tends to strengthen the hand of the party apparatus, which manages election strategy. Both the DPJ and the LDP have been engaged in a process of trial and error as they grope for a way to maintain centralized control over both the ministries and the party and carry out policymaking in a responsive and decisive manner. Let us review their efforts to date, beginning with the DPJ.

Leadership Under the DPJ

Having campaigned and won in 2009 on a pledge to overhaul the government decision-making process at the national level, the new DPJ government was eager to strengthen institutional support for centralized decision-making by the prime minister. To this end, the cabinet of Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio (December 2009–June 2010) unveiled two new advisory bodies to coordinate policy: the National Policy Unit and the Government Revitalization Unit. However, the relationship of these new organs to the Cabinet Secretariat and other existing bodies remained unclear until the government of Noda Yoshihiko (September 2011–December 2012) defined the National Policy Unit as the successor to Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, the Government Revitalization Unit as the body in charge of administrative reform, and the Cabinet Secretariat as the basic advisory office directly under the prime minister. As is customary, the government also assigned Diet politicians to serve as “senior vice-ministers” and “parliamentary secretaries” under each minister. It then abolished the conference of administrative vice-ministers that had traditionally preceded each regular cabinet meeting. The task of coordinating and mediating among the ministries was assigned to a conference of senior vice-ministers, chaired by the parliamentary deputy chief cabinet secretary—also a Diet member.

For this body to function, the political executives at each ministry—minister, senior vice-minister, and parliamentary secretary—had to be in control of the ministry’s operations. This never happened, however, because once the bureaucrats found themselves excluded from active policymaking, communications broke down, and the political executives were unable to obtain the information necessary for sound policy decisions. As a consequence, members of the cabinet were continually causing confusion and embarrassment with premature or ill-considered policy announcements. A notable example was Prime Minister Hatoyama’s own statement on the relocation of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside of Okinawa Prefecture, an option that was quickly revealed to be unfeasible.

In Britain, where power is continually alternating between parties, each new administration understands the need to prioritize the pledges in its election manifesto according to what it can reasonably hope to accomplish. The DPJ failed utterly in prioritizing its agenda, and largely as a result, the only major campaign promise it was able to fulfill was individual household income support for farmers, a policy for which preparations had begun relatively early.

Finally, of the three DPJ prime ministers, only Noda (who kept the government on a fairly even keel and even managed to push through major tax legislation) showed even the most basic understanding of political leadership. Hatoyama and his successor, Kan Naoto, surrounded themselves with incompetent advisors and proved woefully ill equipped to handle the mass media. Party unity collapsed over the key issues of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and reform of the social security and tax systems. The prime minister had lost control of his own cabinet and his own party.

Abe and the Return of the LDP

Amidst this chaos, the LDP staged a decisive comeback in the 2012 general election, and Abe Shinzō returned to the prime minister’s office last December. Based on his performance so far, we can surmise that Abe has learned valuable lessons from the DPJ’s failures.

First, both Abe and his ministers have resisted the temptation to grandstand or overreach on policy at this stage. Although one may regret the LDP’s failure to transform itself during its years in exile, at least the LDP’s policymaking apparatus—unlike a new cabinet organization—was fairly easy to reactivate, and it has provided the support and discipline the new administration needs at this stage. Working with the Kantei, the Tax System Research Council and other LDP policy organs seems to have restrained the government from embarking on policy initiatives with little or no hope of success.

Second, the new cabinet has encouraged the bureaucracy to return to an active role in policymaking, and the Finance Ministry is making its voice heard throughout the government, as one can gather from the budget process and the prime minister’s choice to fill such positions as chairman of the Fair Trade Commission and governor of the Bank of Japan. (Former Ministry of Finance officials have filled both posts.) It now seems fairly clear that a change in government will proceed without a major mishap, operating within fiscal constraints.

With regard to the Kantei, the chief cabinet secretary has established control over the Cabinet Secretariat as a whole, and new advisory organs are being launched with a view to making good on Abe’s general-election pledges once the LDP has cleared the hurdle of the July House of Councillors election. New policy proposals will doubtless emerge after the election, and the Kantei will have the task of fleshing those out. If the LDP secures a majority in the upper house, that will clear the way for an era of strong policy leadership from the Kantei.

Unfortunately, bureaucrats from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry currently occupy most of the key Kantei posts, but because most of today’s ministries are descended from the old Home Ministry, officials from those agencies are really needed to coordinate policymaking throughout the Kantei. In respect to economic policy—currently the Abe cabinet’s major focus—the division of labor between the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, which has begun to function again, and the Headquarters for Japan’s Economic Revitalization, established under the current cabinet, remains uncertain.

Because of issues like these, a complete reorganization of the Kantei is probably unavoidable at some point. Thus the Abe government faces the challenge of rebuilding the Cabinet Secretariat into an instrument of responsive top-down leadership, even while addressing its immediate policy priorities. Assuming nothing forces a dissolution of the House of Representatives before the current members’ terms expire in 2016, it will have three years between the end of the July upper house poll and the next national election. The big question is whether, in that brief time, the Abe government can fashion a new model of Kantei leadership tailored to an era of shifting party dominance.

(Originally published in Japanese on June 27, 2013.)

Kan Naoto Noda Yoshihiko Yoshida Shigeru Diet Abe Shinzō Nakasone Yasuhiro Hatoyama Ichiro DPJ LDP Hashimoto Ryutaro Koizumi Jun’ichirō prime minister Aso Taro Hosokawa Morihiro cabinet Fukuda Takeo Makihara Izuru Kōno Ichirō Suzuki Zenkō Gotōda Masaharu Miyazawa Kiichi Takenaka Heizō Tanaka Maiko Iijima Isao Hatoyam Yukio