This research studies that the public administration and democracy in Japan by using secondary resources. This paper first introduces Japan’s political system, including the constitution, legislative branch, judicial branch, executive branch and how they operate. Then, this paper examines how Japans’ public administration organized, such as government agencies, civil service system, and the relations among bureaucrats and politicians. This study also identifies the major problems of Japan’s public administrations, such as departmentalism, democracy and efficiency. By comparing the fundamental factors of public service between China and Japan, this paper concludes with the two Asian countries ‘different path on public administration.

Key words: Japan, public administration, political system

Political System

Japan, an island nation in East Asia, has the world’s tenth-largest population, with over 127 million people. Japan is now the third largest economy in the world, even though it has been experiencing economic stagnation since the 1990s. A tsunami disaster hit Japan in March 2011, creating major economic, environmental, and humanity crisis.

Japan’s Constitution was publicized in November 1946, and enforced on May 1947, establishing a democratic, fundamental separation of state powers (Figure 1). Under this constitution, Japan is a constitutional monarchy country where the power of the Emperor is very limited. This constitution specifies that legislative power is vested in the Diet; executive power is vested in the Cabinet with the Prime Minister at its head, designated from among the members of the Diet by a resolution of the Diet; and all judicial power is vested in the Supreme Court and in the inferior courts (The Constitution of Japan, 2011). The courts are the final adjudicators of all legal disputes, including those between citizens and the state arising out of administrative action (The Supreme Court of Japan, 2011).

Figure Separation of Powers (Source: The National Diet of Japan)

Legislative Branch

The National Diet (Legislature) is composed of two houses – the House of Representatives and the House of Councilors. The House of Representatives (Shugi-in/Congress) have 480 seats. The representatives are elected for a four-year terms; 200 in single-seat constituencies; 180 members by proportional representation in 11 regional blocs (Table 1). The House of Councilors (Sangi-in/Senator) contains 242 seats. Members of the House of Councilors are elected for six-year terms; half elected every three years’ 146 members in multi-seat constituencies and 96 by proportional representation (The World Factbook-Japan, 2011).

House of Representatives

House of Councilors


Number of members


4 years

(Membership ends with the

dissolution of the House

Term of office

6 years

(with half of the Members

elected every third year)

Citizens 20 years of age or older

Right to vote

Citizens 20 years of age or older

Citizens 25 years of age or older

Right to stand for office

Citizens 30 years of age or older

Single-seat constituency: 300

Proportional representation: 180


Plural-seat prefectural constituency: 146

Proportional representation: 96

Table 1 Comparison of the Membership of the Two Houses

The prime minister of the country and a majority of the ministers of state are required to be chosen from among the Diet members. The cabinet is responsible to the Diet in exercise of executive power, and if the House of Representatives passes a vote of non-confidence, the cabinet is required to resign or the House of Representatives is dissolved in order that an appeal may be made directly to the country through an election (The House of Representative of Japan, 2011).

Executive Branch and Prime Minister

“The cabinet shall consist of the Prime Minister, who shall be its head, and other Ministers of State, as provided by law.” (Article 66, Constitution) The cabinet is an administrative organ for consultation, and presided over the prime minister. The number of Ministers of State constituting the Cabinet, except the prime minister, shall be within 14. The ministries include the Ministry of Public Management, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Minisgtry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, and etc. (Figure 2).

Figure 2, Administrative Structure of the National Government (Source: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology)

The prime minister was given the status as “the head of the Cabinet,” and his/her status and power within the Cabinet were strengthened for consistency and unity of the cabinet. However, , with the exception of independent powers such as appointing and dismissing the Ministers of State and giving consent to impeachment of a Minister of State, the powers of the Prime Minister were exercised with the submission to the Cabinet meeting in principal (The Prime Minister of Japan, 2011).

Judiciary Branch

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation and is composed of the Chief Justice and fourteen Justices. The Chief Justice is appointed by the Emperor following selection by the cabinet. Fourteen other judges are selected and appointed by the Cabinet. Every 10 years, a justice’s tenure has to be confirmed by referendum. In practice, the justices are always reselected and are allowed to serve until the age of 70 (Darlington, 2010).

Figure 3 Judicial System (Source: Supreme Court of Japan)

The inferior courts are high courts, district courts, family courts, and Summary courts (Figure 4). The Supreme Court has initial and final jurisdiction in the proceedings involving the impeachment of commissioner of the National Personnel Authority. The high court hears appeals filed against judgments rendered by district courts of family courts. The district court is primarily the court of general and original jurisdiction, and it handles all cases in the first instance except those specifically coming under the exclusive jurisdiction of other types of court. In addition, there are family courts, (specialized in family affairs and juvenile delinquency case) and summary courts (jurisdiction over civil cases involving claims of more than 900.000 yen) (The Supreme Court of Japan, 2011).

Local Government

Japan’s Constitution recognizes local government as essential to democracy and establish is as part of the nations’ system of government. It states clearly that local authorities should have a broad range of authority over broad range of administrative functions, and grants local legislative authority. The constitution imposes restrictions on the enactment of special legislation applicable only to a given local authority (Japan Local Government Centre, 2011).



Social Capital


Welfare, Health, Sanitation

Industry, Economy

Central government







National Road

River (Primary)


Social Insurance,

Doctor Licensing, Medicine,




Postal Service



Economic Policy

Local Government: Prefecture


Local Road



Public Housing

High School

Child Welfare

Public Health


Regional Development Employment Security

Local Government: Municipality

Fire Defense Family Register

City Planning Local Road


Public Housing


Junior High School

Elementary School


National Health Insurance long-term care insurance

Water supply

Waste disposal

Aged welfare

Public Finance Assistance

Regional Development

Table 2 Distribution of Administrative Affairs

A number of laws were enacted concerning local government, but the core legislation for dealing with its organization and management is the Local Autonomy Law. The provisions of the Local Autonomy Law deal mainly with residents’ affairs, elected councils, and their executive bodies—all that which forms the core of local government. The Law also defines the status of local authorities, including their relationship with central government as well as with other local authorities, and has legal provisions for their financial affairs and other important administrative matters (Japan Local Government Centre, 2011)..

Electoral System

There are three types of elections in Japan. This first one is general elections to the House of Representatives held every four years (unless the lower house is dissolved earlier). The second one is the elections to be the House of Councilors held every three years to choose one-half of its members. The last one is local elections held every four years for offices in prefectures, cities, and villages (Country Studies of the Library of Congress, 2011). Elections are supervised by election committees at each administrative level under the general direction of the Central Election Administration Committee (Country Studies of the Library of Congress, 2011). The minimum voting age for persons of both sexes is twenty years; voters must satisfy a three-month residency requirement before being allowed to cast a ballot (Country Studies of the Library of Congress, 2011). Two sets of age requirements are set for the election candidates: twenty-five years of age for admission to the House of Representatives and most local offices, and thirty years of age for admission to the House of Councilors and the prefectural governorship (Country Studies of the Library of Congress, 2011). Each voter casts one ballot for a prefectural candidate and a second one for a party in the national constituency system(Country Studies of the Library of Congress, 2011).

Individual Right

Individual rights under the Japanese constitution are rooted in Article 13 where the constitution asserts the right of the people “to be respected as individuals” and, subject to “the public welfare”, to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Japan’s Civil Service

The National Personnel Authority (NPA) is the central personnel agency of the Japanese government. The NPA is governed by three commissioners. Commissioners are appointed by the Cabinet, with the consent of the Diet, for a four-year term of office. One of these Commissioners is designated as President, the equivalent in rank to a Minister. The secretariat of the NPA is headed by the Secretary-General, the equivalent in rank to an Administrative Vice-Minister. The secretariat consists of four bureaus, National Public Service Ethics Board, the National Institute of Public Administration and regional offices, Local office (National Personnel Authority of Japan, 2011).

The main functions of the NPA are to: (i) define rules concerning appointment, promotion and retirement; (ii) conduct recruitment examinations; (iii) recommend revisions in salary and plan alternative remuneration systems; (iv) coordinate and conduct training programs; (v) take charge of working conditions and welfare; (vi) monitor discipline and ethics; and (vii) review adverse action taken by ministries and agencies(National Personnel Authority of Japan, 2011).

Legal Basis

The NPA was established in December 1948 under the “National Public Service Law (NPSL)”. Although under the jurisdiction of the cabinet, the NPA operates as an independent authority. It seeks to maintain neutrality in government employees and to protect employees’ welfare and interests in compensation for certain restrictions on their labor rights (National Personal Authority of Japan, 2011).


Competitive recruitment examinations play an important role in public service recruitment. Japanese nationality with a range of age can take these examinations. Examinations are usually comprised of general knowledge tests, specialist knowledge tests and interviews (National Personal Authority of Japan, 2011). Concerning specialist knowledge tests, examinations are divided into separate sub-divisions such as law, economics, physics, etc. which each candidate may choose according to their specialization. Successful candidates are entered on an eligibility list. The list is valid for a fixed period according to the examinations. Each ministry and agency selects candidates from this list to interview, and have the final choice over whom they recruit (National Personal Authority of Japan, 2011)

Promotion & rotation of personnel are decided unilaterally by the management. The management are not obliged to circulate announcements of a vacancy, nor do they have to wait for employee applications. The personnel division of each ministry and agency draft a personnel movement plan. This plan must be finally approved by a high-ranking official with authority over appointment, such as Minister or Administrative Vice-Minister. In general practice, employees are rotated to different positions every few years. The positions they are transferred to are not necessarily posts within their own organizations but sometimes those in other ministries and agencies. Personnel rotated to other organizations usually return to their initial appointment ministries or agencies, at a later stage.

Promoting is decided on a merit basis. No examination is conducted regarding promoting. The initial level of recruitment examination, seniority and performance record of an employee are major factors in deciding promotion. The highest post career officials can be promoted to is Administrative Vice-Minister (Figure 2) (National Personal Authority of Japan, 2011)

Figure 4 Structure of Ministries and Agencies (Source: NPA of Japan)

Ethics and Civil Service

Japan’s public service is ranked highly clean in the world (Transparency International, 2003). In Japan, there are several investigative authority bodies like the judicial police, public prosecutors and special investigative sections or departments, which join in administrative organizations. In three major cities, such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, the public prosecutors offices have special investigation departments to investigates cases involving bribery, breach of trust, etc. These special investigation departments are regarded as being staffed with highly competence investigative offices. In addition, and once an investigation is launched, they investigate not only corruption cases, but also related crimes, such as a violation against the law for oath, testimony, violation against the Political Funds Control Law, etc. The relationship between policy and public prosecutors in Japan is regarded as cooperation in general. However, the police and public prosecutors belong to different organization independent of each other (United Nations Asian and Far East Institute for the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders)

The National Public Service Ethics Law, was effective April 2000, to prevent civil servants from abusing their power. This law was to make sure public trust for public administration deterring activities that create disbelief of distrust against the fairness of performance of duties by introducing measures to contribute to retaining ethics related to the duties of national public service officials (National Public Service Board of Japan, 2011).

The law provides establishment of a National Public Service Ethics Board within the National Personnel Authority, responsible for conducting research and studies concerning retention of ethics in national public services and developing a standard of disciplinary actions as punishment against employees violating this law, as well as submitting an opinion concerning the establishment or revision of the National Public Service Officials Ethics Code to the Cabinet, etc., which includes the following: (i) obligation of assistant director or higher officials to report gifts, favors, etc. of value beyond 5000 yen, received from enterprises or organizations; (ii) obligation of deputy director-general or higher officials to disclose their stock exchange and income; and (iii) appointment of Ethic supervisory officers in each Office and Ministry to retain ethics related to the duties of national public service officials. Thirteen cases of investigation (they include two cases continuing from the previous year) were made into employees’ acts suspected of violating the Ethics Law (National Public Service Ethics Board of Japan, 2011).

3. Problems of Public Administration in Japan

Japanese government is rated as the most efficient bureaucracy in the world, holding the nations’ brightest and cohesive talent, relative independent of politics. This model leads the fastest growing economy in the 1970s, and helped Japan reach one of the largest economies on the planet. However, scholars argue that Japanese public administration is confronting more and more problems as the economy and society develop, such as organizational structure, efficiency and democracy, personnel systems and so on.

In March 2011, a destructive earthquake, causing tsunami, hit Japan’s east coast-Fukushima prefecture, about 230 miles northeast of Tokyo. The disasters immediately created thousands of people’s death, engulfed entire towns, damaged nuclear power plants, left a huge number of homeless. As desperate refugees are waiting for help and international rescue teams are rushing to the hardest hit area, Japan’s bureaucracy has slow down the delivery of aid. Japan’s stringent customs regulations on importing animals delayed a Swiss search and rescue team from getting their nine highly trained dogs to the quake zone. Domestic volunteers were also turned away because of the poor coordination of local governments. However, displaced people are hungry and cannot drive to grocery store due to the shortage of fuels, and government failed to distribute the strategic petroleum reserve to victims. Some medicine donations from overseas have also been turned down because Japanese regulatory agencies have not yet given the drugs approval, even though many elderly were suffering in the earthquake’s aftermath. The international community attributes this to Japan’s inefficient bureaucracy.

3.1. Departmentalism

The first problem is how to integrate departmentalism in government organizations. Japanese government organization has a long legacy of the departmental fragmentation (Tsuji, 1982). As the number of new government functions increase, the pressure from interests groups also contribute more and more to this centrifugal tendency. In modern states, the integration of complex and highly differentiated civil service system is vital to achieve the purpose of the government itself (Tsuji, 1982). In Japan, the formulation and implementation of policy, budgeting and development are prepared separately in each ministry. In addition, the coordination of policy implementation is also lagging behind the increasing needs of society. This departmentalism is deeply rooted in Japan’s public administration. Therefore, it is and will remain for some time, one of the major tasks of the Government to bring the activities of each ministry always in line with government policy.

In theory, departmentalism was advocated by the early generation of scientists, in order to maximize efficiency. Fry and Raadschelders (2008) classify departmentalism in classical approach of public administration, as a critical and logical complement to the scientific management movement. Whereas the primary focus of scientific management was the performance of physical tasks, that of the Departmentalists was the formal organizational structure. As a result, while the basic tool of analysis of scientific management was the time-and-motion study (Fry and Raadschelders, 2008). The general problem addressed by the departmentalists was the identification of the tasks necessary to accomplish an organizational purpose and the grouping and coordination of those tasks in a way that would maximize managerial efficiency (Fry and Raadschelders, 2008). Departmentalists’ principles were never totally discarded. Some of their basic principles-that authority should be commensurate with responsibility, that there should be unity of command in the organization, and that the chain of command should not be circumvented have become deeply ingrained in our administrative culture. Therefore, Departmentalists’ approach seems to be a two-edge sword in civil service.

3.2. Efficiency and Democracy

How to achieve a harmony efficiency and democracy in public administration is also a problem in Japan. Like many modern society, Japan is searching for the solution. Most of the important laws concerning civil service testify to both principles of efficiency and democracy, yet in practice, these two values are not in complete harmony. The traditional bureaucratic character remains to some extent within Japan’s public administration. Bureaucracy continues to exist, and never diminish. In Japan, where traditional elements persist, the need to achieve harmony of efficiency and democracy is even more urgent than in some Western Countries (Tsuji, 1982).

A management rationalization movement, impacted by a analogous movement in private enterprise in the United States, has been steadily entering the realm of civil service in Japan. Efforts to promote efficiency have been directed mainly towards the internal rationalization of administrative agencies up to now. Nevertheless, true efficiency in public service can be promoted only when efforts are made to get better its external relations with the people. Efficiency must be based upon administrative pragmatism on the one hand and social must fulfill people’s needs (Tsuji, 1982). To achieve this, the establishment of a special body to guarantee the responsibility of the administration by measuring administration and findings ways to make the behavior of government employees democratic is essential.

In order to promote democracy, Japan launched its e-Japan strategy for making Japan the most advanced IT state globally in 1997, and most importantly to improve the quality of public services and the efficiency of administrative work (Shinkai, 2010). Many departments upload information to their websites and plead public comments on drafts of regulation. In particular, the transparency of policymaking processes is being improved by providing notes of advisory councils on the web ites. On the other hand, the e-Japan Strategy, which mainly guides policies of the central government, did no t take e-democracy into consideration. On top of the national strategy of e-Japan, many local governments apply e-forum as an effective tool for e-democracy (Shinkai, 2010). In December 2002, 733 local governments present e-forums on their websites. The local governments are planning to create e-local government, not only as a new channel for offering civil society with public services and tools for improving the efficiency of their work, but also a stage on which to build and strengthen the collaboration and coordination with citizens.

3.3. Bureaucrats vs. Politicians

One of the constant arguments among specialists in Japanese politics concerns the relative degree of pressure over policymaking exerted by public servants versus elected officials (Pempel, 1992). However, there is general agreement that the recent tendencies in relative influence present that members of the Liberal Democratic Party are taking an increased interest in, and are exerting greater overall control over, an ever larger range of policy issues (Pempel, 1992). At the same time, it is important to understand that since there are such secure and intimate linkages- personal, organizational and ideological-between these politicians and most national bureaucrats, that these battles for influence are far closer to intra-family argue than they are to all out war. The two groups may exhibit different skills and immediate concerns but their ultimate standards and purposes are usually quite compatible (Pempel, 1992).

3.4. The Bureaucracy and Policy Formation

Entering the world of electoral politics is only one of the many ways in which an administrator or an entire agency can influence political decisions. Certainly, there is no modern bureaucracy today that is divorced from politics. One of the most important means for bureau- cratic influence over politics in Japan has been its influence over policy formation. One survey of national level bureaucrats showed a full 80% holding that it was they, and not the elected politicians, who were solving Japan’s general policy problems.

This figure compared to only 21% of the British and 16 % of the West German officials surveyed. Japan’s senior bureaucrats surely see them- selves as pro-active, rather than reactive on policy measures. These attitudinal supports for bureaucratic influence are matched by actual performances. Bureaucratic expertise provides a key component in the exercise of such influence. Agencies have a great deal of influence in shaping the conceptualization of issues. They are most often charged by parliament with investigating politically sensitive problems. Reports submitted to the agencies by their various attached advisory com- missions often form the core of new legal proposals. Their various attached advisory commissions often play an instrumental role in issuing agenda setting reports. Ultimately, about ninety percent of all legislation passed in the parliament is first drafted by bureaucratic agencies. Top-level bureaucrats are typically the equivalent of floor managers for such bills once they are introduced in parliament. Moreover, most bills are broad in nature and include specific provisos relegating specifics on implementation to subsequent bureaucratic ordinances. In fact, much of the actual lawmaking in Japan consists not simply of laws, but of precisely such extra-parliamentary ordinances issued based on agency authority alone.

Comparison of the higher civil service in Japan and China

China and Japan are two centuries-long neighbors, sharing similar cultures and history. At present, China’s rapid economic development drastically changes its public administration system, comparing with Japan’s mature public service. This part will evaluate some fundamental difference between two countries’ bureaucratic systems.

Guanxi, as known as connection, is the most important factor at all levels of the pyramid in China’s civil service system. Without guanxi, it is impossible for an individual to survive in the political system, or even in everyday life. No matter whether on belong to the communist party, or to the government agencies, everyone relies on personal connection networks. Furthermore, guanxi dominates not only in bureaucracy, but also in many other areas, such as business, education, industry, and so on. Practically, the National People’s Congress fails to carry out the constitution of the Chinese political systems; however, individuals with a strong and high-ranking guanxi network have more power than the constitution. A group of political elites, instead of institutions, functions this country (Lee, 1991). People in public service follow a particular faction expecting promotions in the future by manipulating guanxi (Suganuma, 1995).

Unlike China, the Japanese management emphasizes the strict ranking system. An individual must understand his/her gakubatsu (old school tie) and act upon the strict rules inside the vertical structure in order to be promoted (Suganuma, 1995). Gakubatsu have become major motivating force in the Japanese public service. Not only is the official rank harsh on their activities, but informal order among them is strict. Besides with the Japanese custom, the relationship between junior and senior officers is extremely complicated since it involves not only formal business relations, but also informal social connections. The young bureaucrats can reach the top only after junior public administrators serve senior members for a long period of time (Suganuma, 1995).

In both countries, there exist elements of guanxi and gakubatsu. However, by breaking this “mask” of culture, the gaps between the East and the West are seen to be considerably narrowed. Indeed, the Japanese and Chinese systems are neither “unique” nor “mystical” (Suganuma, 1995). Rather, each people has its own view, own manifestation, and own approaches of public administration by using different languages.

The state structures of China and Japan have some similarities and differences to some extent. At the macro level, both systems are strictly hierarchical. Based on seniority, top leaders are drawn from various factions. Amusingly, both systems allow top bureaucrats to occupy top leadership positions, such as Prime Minister or Vice Prime Ministers (Liberthal and Oksenberg, 1988). Regardless of the Chinese autocracy and the Japanese democracy, the parliaments in both countries perform as “rubber-stamps” or “puppets”, merely passing bills. This demonstrates that the political system, at least in these cases, does not make a difference. It is true in China that top civil servants have little influence on the policy process under the Communist Central Party domination. Nevertheless, this is not the case in Japan. Since the Chinese civil service system is much less mature than its Japanese counterpart is, the relationship between civil servants and politicians is a top-down connection, rather than the Japanese bottom-up relations. Politicians in Japan sometimes have to ask bureaucrats for help (Volcker and Gyohten, 1992). At the micro level, the Chinese and Japanese systems are diverse. The matrix (Chart 4) compares and contrasts these systems, demonstrating their differences. It is true that Japan has a stronger bureaucracy than that of China, but this does not mean that Japan’s system is inferior to China. “The truth of the matter is that modern, complex, interdependent societies cannot function without bureaucracies,”(Harding, 1981) but it is practically impossible to get along with them.

Interestingly, China’s current civil service system was established with collaboration from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University at the beginning of the 1990s. In 1993, Chinese national School of Administration signed an accord with the Maxwell school. This cooperation helped the Chinese to develop a new curriculum in public affairs and public administration that facilitate the government restructuring (Maxwell Perspective, 1994). The contemporary system aims to revitalize some elements of the oil administration system. At this point, China and Japan’s public administration system receive influence from the US.

Figure 5 Comparison of tow political systems (Suganuma, 1995)


Japan is the economic powerhouse in Asia, with a long history mixing cultures between the east and the west. After the World War II, with the American assistance, Japan has gradually established a westernized political system with East Asian customs. Japans’ efficient public administration and the way of policymaking driven by bureaucrats truly provide strong conditions for its economic development. However, there are still some problems of public administration, such as policy fragmentation, democracy vs. efficiency, and politics vs. public administrators. Japan has been endeavored to solve the problems and conducted many administrative reforms, like E-Government, de-regulation, joint taskforce, and so on. These activities construct Japans’ new Public Administrative Management movement.

This paper also compares China and Japan’s civil service on some fundamental aspects. The two countries show strong similarities in the way of public administration, with a strong influence of Confucian. Both countries emphasize personal connections (guanxi) and social ranking (gakubatsu) in the public sectors. Interestingly, the US or American institutions play a constructive role in developing the two countries’ public service. For example, the Maxwell School of Syracuse University has assisted China with a new public administration system, including government recruitment, personnel systems, and policymaking.

Leave a Comment