The Nature and Role of the Civil Service in Japanese Government Decision-making

Kazumasa Okubo
JEL codes: 
PRI Discussion Paper Series (No.05A-11)

The nature and the role of the civil service in Japan are sufficiently elusive that analysis of the governmental policy-making process tends to focus on the extremes of party politics or the bureaucratic policy-making process, neither of which, in isolation, can reveal the real decision-making process. Analysis of governmental decision-making must focus more on
the relation between politicians and civil servants. To this end, principal-agent analysis is useful, but questions remain as to who is the principal and who the agent. The prevailing
assumption is that the Liberal Democratic Party LDP (currently the ruling coalition party) is the principal, and civil servants the agent1. However, since cabinet members are the
masters of civil servants, an argument could be made that the prime minister and cabinet
members must necessarily be the principal. This is particularly the case when other members of the LDP oppose the policies of the prime minister and cabinet members. In fact, who is the principal has varied from time to time and from event to event and politicians have always competed with each other to be the real principal to the civil servants agent.
Despite this, there has been a prevailing misunderstanding that civil servants have enormous power to influence politicians and are able to neglect their minister’s instructions. By providing an analysis of the historical development and the nature of the civil service in Japan, this paper attempts to present a more accurate picture of the relationship between
politicians and civil servants and to describe the role of the civil service in the decision-making process. It also seeks to explain why, despite their role as agent for whatever principal, civil servants are widely regarded as powerful and reliable but also, in some cases, as culpable and blameworthy.