The End of the Iron Triangle and What it Means for Japanese Politics

When it emerged last month that the Education Ministry, MEXT, had intervened to help to secure a position at Waseda University for one of its retiring staff members, it sparked a scandal which brought about the resignation of a senior bureaucrat at the ministry. The ensuing probe has thus far uncovered 27 further examples of the same practice. An interim report has shown retiring MEXT officials being parachuted into roles at several of Japan’s top universities. With the investigation still ongoing, it’s likely that further cases will be uncovered before a final report is issued in March.

 

The practice of bureaucrats being helped into roles within the industries they’ve spent their careers regulating is called amakudari (“descent from heaven”), and it’s a familiar practice to anyone who has studied the structure of Japan’s postwar government. It was one of the structural supports of the “Iron Triangle,” which connected the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the bureaucracy and Japan’s corporations in a tightly bonded relationship of mutual self-interest. Bureaucrats who faithfully served the LDP’s interests during their civil service career were rewarded with high-paying corporate roles upon retirement; in turn, they provided the corporations with access to a valuable network of contacts and back-channels into their former ministries.

 

But that was then and this is now. One of the under-reported aspects of the political transformation which Japan has gone through since the turn of the century is the rapid decline of the amakudari system, which was placed under huge pressure by a series of formal and informal reforms from the early 2000s onwards, culminating in legislation that made it outright illegal in 2007. What’s remarkable, in a historical context, about this amakudari scandal is that it’s a scandal at all; for most of the post-war era, these appointments would have been considered business as usual. MEXT appears to have exploited a loophole in the 2007 law by using retired staff members, rather than current bureaucrats, as middle-men to negotiate the appointments. Given the outcry over this scandal, that loophole will undoubtedly now slam shut.

 

The end of the amakudari system, with the current scandal likely being its last major gasp, reflects a sea change in the underlying structure of Japan’s governance. As economic growth stumbled, the Iron Triangle rusted and crumbled. The notion that Japan’s corporations, its bureaucracy, and its dominant political party are all marching in lock-step is gone, and with it the corporatist, centrally-controlled economic model that the country leaned upon throughout its years of growth. Few of Japan’s major corporations are responsive to the demands of central government; witness, for example, the somewhat humiliating failure of the LDP to convince corporations to redistribute their Abenomics windfalls to their employees through pay rises.

 

This has far-reaching consequences for how Japanese politics function. In one of the most important books ever written on Japanese politics and governance, 1993’s Japan’s Political Marketplace, Mark Ramsayer and Frances McCall Rosenbluth laid out a logical model of how power and control flows between various factions in the government. It was a ground-breaking piece of research not least because it finally laid to rest decades of nonsensical hand-waving about Japan’s system being “unique,” based in an inscrutable culture that defied analysis or understanding; an intellectually lazy and bluntly rather racist proposition that’s still found in many fields, but which Ramsayer and Rosenbluth thankfully banished within political science. In its place, they demonstrated a system wherein the relationships between LDP voters and politicians, between rank and file politicians and party leaders, and between the political leadership and the bureaucracy (and judiciary) were all carefully monitored and moderated by penalties, rewards and benefits that flowed back and forth through the channels laid out in Japan’s institutional framework. The precise details of those systems has been debated in the intervening years, but many of its key concepts remain essentially intact.

 

One of those concepts, unsurprisingly, relates directly to amakudari. In Ramseyer and Rosenbluth’s model, amakudari is one of the key ways in which the LDP polices the activity of the bureaucracy, thereby ensuring that they are acting in the party’s best interests. On the face of it, Japan’s bureaucrats are very powerful, since they both write and implement legislation. Without some method of policing that activity, the LDP could not be assured that bureaucrats would write legislation that met with the approval of their voters. Indeed, many researchers of Japanese politics assumed that the bureaucracy, though unelected, were the ultimate power within the government system. Amakudari, however, acted as a kind of “bond;” people entering the civil service agreed to several decades of relatively low pay, with the deferred pay-off being the high salary from their ultimate amakudari job. Bureaucrats who stepped too far out of line risked losing that “bond”—which would make up a large part of their lifetime earnings.

 

With the end of the Iron Triangle, amakudari became seen—quite rightly—as something rather more sinister. With corporations acting in competition rather than in centrally-planned concert, a system of pushing retiring civil servants into well-paid jobs at firms they were meant to be regulating was a potential well of corruption. LDP leaders from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi onwards, though keen to maintain the LDP’s own links to industry, saw the ongoing cosy relationship between the bureaucracy and the corporate world as a problem to be tackled. The reason why can be clearly seen in the current scandal; the amakudari scheme being conducted within MEXT was seemingly happening without the intervention or blessing of the LDP, meaning that bureaucrats themselves had taken control of a mechanism originally designed to keep them in line.

 

In directly maintaining this kind of relationship with corporations, bureaucrats were creating a power channel that bypassed the political leadership (LDP or otherwise) entirely. There’s an obvious potential for conflict in that situation—the bureaucracy would be maintaining its own back-channel relationship with corporations, independently from the relationship of the political leadership. Where the Iron Triangle system saw all three sides in a kind of balance, this effectively created two parallel, unrelated tracks – disconnecting bureaucrats’ relationships with the industries they oversee from the relationships of their supposed bosses, and undermining elected officials’ control of government in the process.

 

It’s because of this that amakudari, once taken for granted as a normal part of the functioning of Japan’s governance, is no longer tolerable to its leadership. That’s why they’ve legislated against it, and that’s why the uncovering of an ongoing amakudari scheme is a scandal big enough to end the careers of senior civil servants. Far from being evidence that nothing has changed in Japan, this scandal is proof of just how much has changed—and of the very real consequences for those who insist on continuing to play by the old rules.

 

Rob Fahey is a PhD researcher at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Political Science and is a recipient of funding from MEXT. The views expressed here are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect those of any institution with which he is affiliated. Follow him on Twitter at @robfahey

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