TOKYO (Reuters) – New Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is moving to repair the government's battered relations with bureaucrats in hopes of mobilizing their expertise, but some worry his government will end up as puppet rather than puppet master.
Noda took office last week as Japan's sixth premier in five years and the third since his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took power in 2009 pledging to change how the country is run.
A promise to prise control of policymaking away from elite bureaucrats and put politicians in charge was a key element of the party's platform, and one popular with many voters for whom bureaucrats had become symbols of a discredited past regime.
Behind the pledge was the belief that the decades-old system of cozy ties between officials and the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party had bred policy collusion that fostered waste and corruption and hampered vital economic and social reforms.
"It's a very different way of approach from where the DPJ started, with more politicians going into government and the government making decisions," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University. "That may not be so bad when stability is more important than anything else.
"But Japan needs more than stability and consensus. It needs innovation, and trials of new things," he said. "Just going back to the old ways comes with a heavy price in the long-term."
The result of policy collusion has been on full display in the radiation crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (Tepco) tsunami-hit Fukushima plant, which drew back the curtain on the utilities, regulators and lawmakers who had promoted atomic power under lax supervision while downplaying risks.
Many agree that the Democrats went too far in bashing bureaucrats under their first two short-term premiers, Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan, shutting out and alienating ministry officials without thought for their expertise. Repairing relations will likely smooth policy formation short-term.
But pessimists fear that the Democrats are now reviving practices that stand in the way of changes needed to address the mountain of problems from rebuilding northeast Japan and ending the radiation crisis to designing a new energy policy and funding the costs of social security in a fast-aging society.
Adopting a less confrontational tone was clearly on Noda's mind when he spoke to assembled senior officials this week.
"Politicians alone cannot move the world. We need the support and efforts of all of you from each ministry," said the 54-year-old Noda, who served as finance minister under Kan.
CORRECTION OR CAPITULATION?
The new tone of civility will not go amiss in officialdom.
"I don't think he is rejecting the idea of political leadership but he recognizes that without fully mobilizing administrative expertise, he can't accomplish anything, whether it's reconstruction or finding funds," said one ex-bureaucrat.
"One can hope that if this goes smoothly, it could lead to a new sort of leadership by the premier and politicians."
Optimists say the mid-course correction by the 54-year-old Noda does not mean he will capitulate to bureaucratic masters.
"The way to control bureaucrats is not to mess with them, but to set policy and keep it intact for more than two years," said Steven Reed, a political science professor at Chuo University. "What the Democrats have done with the selection of Noda is a first -- they haven't changed policies," he said.
"I don't think there is a chance in the world that they will end up under the thumb of the bureaucrats."
Noda has made clear that a top priority is curbing Japan's public debt, already twice the size of its $5 trillion economy, a concern shared by Kan during his short 15-month term.
On the energy front, Noda has distanced himself from Kan's anti-nuclear rhetoric, but acknowledges that reducing reliance on nuclear power and promoting a bigger role for renewable sources is inevitable given voters' new-found atomic allergy.
"The broad-based course has been charted and the next level is details, implementing and drafting of specific laws," said Jesper Koll, director of equities research at JPMorgan.
That may smooth policy implementation short-term, although with Noda's own party split on many issues and the opposition LDP spoiling for a fight in a divided parliament, even that is uncertain.
Longer-term, the lack of a broad policy vision and clear priorities could mean Noda's novice ministers fall under a bureaucratic spell, whether woven by finance officials keen to raise income and corporate taxes to pay for post-disaster reconstruction or pro-nuclear bureaucrats in the trade ministry.
"In the absence of some driving vision, you basically turn to the people who can get things done on a day-to-day basis -- the bureaucrats," said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis.
"Noda is nobody's puppet, but whom will he depend on for advice? There are no think tanks, no brain trust in the Kantei (PM's office), so he's stuck relying on bureaucrats."
(Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Nick Macfie)