Japan moves to reorganize government bureaucracy

Ministries cut to shift power, boost efficiency

January 08, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOKYO - In a move aimed at expanding efficiency and shifting the power balance from bureaucrats to politicians, Japan has trimmed the number of national ministries and agencies by nearly half, effective this week.

Hallways throughout Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district, the base of the central government, were piled high over the weekend with more than 130,000 boxes, as bureaucrats scurried to find mislaid documents and moving vans outside disgorged more in the biggest revamping since World War II.

The government has not provided an official cost for the operation, but some estimates place it in excess of $350 million. Critics and many ordinary citizens quickly condemned the move as long on form but short on substance.

"The container has been remodeled," the newspaper Asahi said Saturday. "Now the question is what's inside."

While the changes, which have been in the works for at least three years, may be a first step toward reforming Japan's much-regulated society, they provide no clear blueprint for handling some of the nation's biggest problems. These include the beleaguered economy, public debt that exceeds 130 percent of the gross domestic product, a ponderous decision-making process, and critical social welfare issues related to schooling and a rapidly aging population.

Japan has come under growing criticism at home and abroad over the past decade for the strong grip its ministries hold on a wide range of details affecting almost every aspect of daily life. Even the water temperature in community bathhouses has been subject to their regulation. But it wasn't until a string of ministry scandals concerning economic mismanagement and HIV-tainted blood products rocked the nation in recent years that momentum for the restructuring reached critical mass.

Under the reorganization, 22 ministries and agencies were reduced as of Saturday to 12. The government has set a goal of trimming its 540,000 bureaucrats by 136,000 over the next decade, largely through attrition.

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