H-Diplo Article Review No. 872
11 July 2019
Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii
Ko Mishima. “Institutional Conversion of Japan’s National Personnel Authority: How Indigenous Forces Have Reshaped a U.S. Occupation-imposed Bureaucratic Institution.” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 25:4 (2018): 384-412. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/18765610-02504002.
Review by Steven K. Vogel, University of California, Berkeley
Chalmers Johnson placed Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) at the heart of his model of the “developmental state,” and credited MITI’s industrial policy with a central role in engineering Japan’s postwar economic success. Johnson identified four core features of the developmental state: 1) an elite bureaucracy, 2) substantial bureaucratic autonomy within the political system, 3) market-conforming intervention in the economy (industrial policy), and 4) a pilot agency such as MITI.
Johnson emphasized the unique features of Japan’s developmental state and argued that this model could not easily be transferred to other countries such as the United States. Yet scholars have gone on to apply the concept in other contexts. Peter Evans has contrasted developmental states like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan from ‘predatory’ states, like Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Developmental states approximate the Weberian ideal of a government bureaucracy with highly selective recruitment, long-term career rewards, and organizational coherence. Predatory states are plagued by a weak bureaucracy that is unable to prevent individual officials from pursuing their own personal goals over the public good.
Ko Mishima’s study of the National Personnel Authority (NPA) sheds new light on Japan’s postwar bureaucracy. Mishima, a professor of political science at East Stroudsburg University, is a former NPA official (1991-1996) himself, so he is able to leverage this expertise as he analyzes the evolution of the agency. Mishima builds on Kathleen Thelen’s model of institutional change to argue that the NPA underwent two critical institutional conversions, one in the 1950s and another in the 2000s.
The U.S. Occupation authorities (1945-1952) created the NPA as an independent agency to remake the Japanese bureaucracy on the American model, with modern personal management practices based on a job classification system. Yet once the Occupation forces departed in 1952, the NPA’s opponents quickly called for its dissolution. The agency survived primarily because these opponents, who came from the left and right, along with the bureaucracy itself, could not agree on the terms of reform, especially with regard to civil servants’ labor rights.
The agency also helped to ensure its own survival by reinventing itself in ways that undermined the intent of the Occupation reformers—yet institutionalized key features of the postwar administrative regime. Specifically, it allowed the individual ministries considerable control over their own personnel systems. It limited hiring to the entry level, solidifying the career civil service model, and revised the pay structure to resurrect something closer to the prewar civil service exam system. By the 1960s, it stabilized labor relations in the public sector by linking its pay recommendations to those of the relatively cooperative private sector wage-determination system (shuntō) that had emerged in the late 1950s. This helped to equalize income across the economy and to reduce labor conflicts in both the private and public sectors.
Thus the NPA occupies a middle case among the Occupation reforms, between the greatest successes, such as demilitarization, and the clear failures, such as the decentralization of the education system. Mishima identifies the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC), the antitrust authority, as the other notable case of institutional conversion. The JFTC survives to this day but its powers and jurisdiction were circumscribed by post-Occupation reforms. Like the NPA case, the JFTC’s conversion was critical to Japan’s postwar model because a more aggressive antitrust regime would have prohibited Japanese-style industrial policy and some distinctive forms of industry coordination, such as general trading companies (sōgō shōsha).
In the 2000s, the NPA underwent a second conversion as it defended bureaucratic autonomy from politicians bent on imposing their will on the civil service. Ryūtarō Hashimoto, who had launched a major administrative reform as prime minister (1996-1998), proposed transferring much of the NPA’s authority over civil service personnel appointments to cabinet ministers, who are politicians in Japan. Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi (2001-2006) took up Hashimoto’s proposals, but ran into substantial resistance—notably from the NPA itself. The first Shinzō Abe (2006-2007) administration and the Yasuo Fukuda (2007-2008) and Tarō Asō (2008-2009) administrations developed a plan to revise the National Public Service Law, the law that established the NPA in 1947. Mishima describes how the NPA fought an extraordinary battle against this proposal, which failed to pass before the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ousted the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from power in the August 2009 general elections.
The DPJ had campaigned on a pledge to transform Japanese politics, in part by seizing control over the bureaucracy. Prime Minister Naoto Kan (2010-2011) submitted an ambitious reform bill to dissolve the NPA and transfer its duties to a new Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs and a new Civil Service Agency, both to be led by cabinet ministers. But the bill never passed.
The LDP returned to power in December 2012, with Abe as prime minister. The Diet passed a more moderate reform bill in April 2014, which allowed the NPA to keep much of its authority but gave political leaders more influence over promotions for senior civil servants. Abe and his Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga have subsequently leveraged their power over appointments to exercise greater control over the bureaucracy. Mishima stresses, however, that the NPA itself played a key role in fending off the more drastic proposals.
Mishima rightly claims that the Japanese bureaucracy is distinctive in a comparative context in its ability to orchestrate its own institutional conversions. The ministries are characterized by considerable discretion vis-à-vis politicians, cohesive leadership, and powerful organizational cultures. They also play an unusually political role, coordinating interest groups and battling for their own organizational interests.
In my view, Mishima’s article bogs down a bit in tying the narrative to Thelen’s model, which is fairly straightforward at its core. And Mishima could have gone further to elucidate the broader lessons of his story for understanding the Japanese bureaucracy, both past and present. Yet he enriches the narrative of these two episodes with considerable nuance and detail to illuminate Japan’s postwar regime and its more recent transformations. This article will be of particular interest to those with some familiarity with Japanese politics and the Japanese economy who seek a deeper understanding of the postwar bureaucracy.
Steven K. Vogel is chair of the Political Economy Program, the Ilhan New Professor of Asian Studies, and a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. He specializes in the political economy of the advanced industrialized nations, especially Japan. His publications include Marketcraft: How Governments Make Markets Work (Oxford University Press, 2018); Japan Remodeled: How Government and Industry Are Reforming Japanese Capitalism (Cornell University Press, 2006); and Freer Markets, More Rules: Regulatory Reform in Advanced Industrial Countries (Cornell University Press, 1996). He has a B.A. from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley.
© 2019 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License
 Chalmers Johnson, MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982), 315-320.
 Meredith Woo-Cumings, ed., The Developmental State (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).
 Peter Evans, Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 12-13.
 Kathleen Thelen, “How Institutions Evolve: Insights from Comparative Historical Analysis,” in James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, eds., Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 208-240. Mishima cites additional papers by Thelen and colleagues in his article.