From Technocracy to Aristocracy: The Changing Career Paths of Japanese Politicians

By North, Christopher Titus | Journal of East Asian Studies, May-August 2005 | Go to article overview

From Technocracy to Aristocracy: The Changing Career Paths of Japanese Politicians


North, Christopher Titus, Journal of East Asian Studies


My study investigates whether there has been a relative decline in the position of the Japanese bureaucracy in their relationship with politicians in recent decades. My hypothesis is that the loss of bureaucratic influence has been a function of the declining position of former bureaucrats within the ruling Liberal Democrat Party (LDP), and that politicians who were able to enter the Diet at a young age (due to hereditary recruitment) have gained influence. Their seniority has placed them at an advantage in promotion to key party and government posts. I use probit and logit analysis of LDP cabinet and Diet members (1955-2003) to demonstrate the decline of former bureaucrats within the LDP in terms of their overall numbers and their occupancy of key posts.

KEYWORDS: administrative, reform, zoku, bureaucracy, Japan, LDP, second-generation, cabinet, politicians, seniority

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The core issue underlying the bulk of scholarly research into the Japanese political economy is the relationship between the bureaucracy and the politicians. A debate has raged between scholars who contend that politicians have little choice than to delegate huge amounts of authority to the bureaucracy and those who insist that politicians take a very active role in policymaking.

Those who contend that politicians should delegate a substantial amount of policymaking authority to the bureaucracy cite the large number of former bureaucrats in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and their institutional loyalty to (as well as faith in) the bureaucracy. Chalmers Johnson and Daniel Okimoto are among scholars who emphasize the prominent role of former bureaucrats within the LDP. (1) Other scholars say that once politicians developed policymaking capabilities of their own they ceased delegating so much authority to the bureaucracy. Takashi Inoguchi and Michio Muramatsu both put forth such arguments. (2) I argue that politicians did reduce their tendency to delegate policymaking to the bureaucracy, but not because of any increase in their own expertise. Rather, the former bureaucrats within the LDP lost their preeminent position, allowing politicians without personal ties to the bureaucracy to take control of the LDP and policymaking. Moreover, second-generation politicians (the heirs of political families such as the sons, daughters, and sons-in-law of politicians) were best situated to take the place of the displaced former bureaucrats.

In this article I examine statistical data on the career paths of politicians during the LDP era in order to discover whether or not there has been a significant shift in the backgrounds of the people at the pinnacle of political power in Japan. The article has two basic goals. The first is to show that during the period of LDP rule there was a shift in recruitment of new politicians from former bureaucrats to the hereditary heirs of departing politicians. The second goal is to demonstrate that preferential promotion of former bureaucrats to important cabinet and party posts gave way to a seniority system based on the number of times a Diet member had been elected. This seniority system initially favored former bureaucrats, thus allowing bureaucratic domination to continue even as the Yoshida School ceased to be a factor in promotion to high office. However, it will be argued that over time the seniority system came to favor second-generation politicians because they were able to get an early start on their political careers and amass seniority at a relatively younger age, turning the LDP from a technocracy run by former bureaucrats to an aristocracy dominated by hereditary politicians.

Much has been written about the role of former bureaucrats in Japan. During his seven years in office, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida recruited large numbers of former bureaucrats into his party, which was one of the forebears of the LDP. He then stocked his cabinets with these former bureaucrats.

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