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Saturday, April 14, 2007

'Amakudari' crackdown called toothless, poll ploy

Staff writer

The government and ruling coalition -- the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito -- agreed Friday on apparent weak-kneed steps to curb the controversial "amakudari" practice of ministries helping their senior officials land high-paying retirement jobs in sectors they once oversaw.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to completely eradicate amakudari, which literally means descent from heaven, because of the costly corruption that it has fostered between officialdom and industries, but the proposed measures have been watered down after weeks of debate by politicians to the point that ministries would still be able to influence the jobs their retirees get.

And some critics see this latest attempt at a crackdown as just a ploy to cast the ruling bloc in a favorable light ahead of the July Upper House election.

Retiring bureaucrats following the century-old amakudari practice are hired by companies and organizations previously under their jurisdiction, putting them in a position to collude with their former ministry colleagues to get preferential treatment for their new employers, the most famous example being bid-rigging on government projects.

The civil servants are also sometimes taken on by quasigovernmental organizations that are kept going for the specific purpose of hiring away the retiring bureaucrats, and paying them high salaries at taxpayers' expense.

"It is very important to the future of the country that the civil service, which has supported postwar Japan, be greatly reformed," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference.

The government plans to have the Cabinet approve the plan and submit to the Diet related bills for the legal revisions before Abe leaves for talks with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on April 26.

The government's proposal is that over three years starting in 2009, ministries will slowly stop helping bureaucrats land new jobs and instead a job center, to be set up by the end of 2008, will take on the role. This center will be under the direct supervision of the Cabinet secretariat. A panel of experts will be tasked with coming up with a detailed plan for the center.

However, the proposal has several loopholes that leave a lot of room for the ministries to stay involved.

The ministries would be able to "cooperate with the center" by providing information about their officials.

This provision could result in ministries controlling the information the center gets about the job-seekers and lobbying to have the names of their former employees put forward for jobs in the industries the ministries are involved in.

The center's operation will also be subject to review if questions are raised about "efficiency and feasibility." Bureaucrats would be able to raise these issues and some fear the ministries could use it to try to control the center.

Administrative reform minister Yoshimi Watanabe responded to that criticism by saying the government should never rethink the personnel center in a way to increase ministries' involvement.

"This is the first step to addressing a very complex system, but I can hardly believe that this step (alone) will break down the close and mutually dependent ties between the bureaucracy and industries," said Takashi Nishio, a professor of public administration at International Christian University.

The professor said the plan might simply be the ruling bloc's attempt to win more votes in the House of Councilors in July.

Nishio said there are many problems that must be solved if the government wants to end amakudari.

He said a major problem is the fact that all senior bureaucrats except for a few at the top must retire when they are in their 50s.

Nishio said the retirement age should be raised and ministries should help senior officials get lower ranked jobs when they leave the civil service.

"To root out amakudari, the government should overhaul the whole bureaucratic system by taking time and making well-prepared schedules," Nishio said.

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The Japan Times

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