Who’s really calling the shots in Japan’s Prime Minister’s Office? By NAKAKITA KOji

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments that precede the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API; Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University; Visiting Fellow, Downing College, University of Cambridge)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on February 15, 2022:

Photo: Shutterstock / Prime Minister’s Office

February 15, 2022

Who’s really calling the shots in Japan’s Prime Minister’s Office?

Professor, Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hitotsubashi University
(“Critical Review of the Abe Administration” Project Chair)




Where is the center of Japan’s political power?

For the past quarter of a century, political reforms have been conducted on and off, strengthening the leadership role of the Prime Minister’s Office.

But it is difficult to know exactly what is going on inside the office.

In January, the Asia Pacific Initiative published a book assessing the administration of the second term — from December 2012 to September 2020 — of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the longest continuously serving prime minister, after conducting a thorough analysis based on interviews with 54 people.

For the book, I was in charge of analyzing and writing how the Prime Minister’s Office — the inner sanctum of political clout — took the lead in policymaking.

One thing that became clear through the process was that the Abe administration in its second term stuck to the basics in running the office, attaching importance to the line of command from the prime minister to the chief Cabinet secretary and to the deputy chief Cabinet secretaries.

Abe’s style at the time was clearly different from that of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who utilized the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy within the Cabinet Office to advise the prime minister, and the first Abe administration, which depended heavily on politicians who served as special advisors to the prime minister.

While in office, Abe held a six-member meeting every day with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga; Kazuhiro Sugita, deputy chief Cabinet secretary for administrative affairs; two deputy chief Cabinet secretaries for political affairs; and Takaya Imai, executive secretary in charge of political affairs, to build a consensus among them.

Suga and Sugita were mainly responsible for appointing top bureaucrats, which was said to have led to bureaucrats feeling intimidated or surmising their intentions.

The other key factor in the second Abe administration was that Abe appointed two former bureaucrats as special advisors: Eiichi Hasegawa, who was close to Abe, and Hiroto Izumi, who was close to Suga.

The two advisors and Imai — also a former bureaucrat who had doubled as special advisor since 2019 — were commissioned by Abe and Suga to give instructions directly to ministries, realizing the strong leadership of the Prime Minister’s Office in making policy decisions.

Four months have passed since the launch of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration, and it looks like Kishida is partly following in Abe’s footsteps in running the Prime Minister’s Office.

Kishida holds a meeting with the chief Cabinet secretary and the deputy chief Cabinet secretaries every day. He has also appointed Takashi Shimada, a former bureaucrat from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) just like Imai, as his executive secretary in charge of political affairs. Shimada and Imai joined the ministry in the same year.

On the other hand, little presence is seen in the line of command from the chief Cabinet secretary, as unlike Suga in the second Abe administration, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno is more of a consensus-oriented politician and does not appear to have a strong political intention to put government ministries under control by using his authority to appoint top bureaucrats as leverage.


Key people for Kishida

One person who is playing a key role in supporting Kishida is Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara, who also serves as head of secretariat for Kochikai, a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) faction led by Kishida.

As Kishida’s closest aide, Kihara has been meeting the prime minister frequently and coordinating policies among different parties on Kishida’s behalf, just as Imai did with Abe.

And unlike in the second Abe administration, special advisors to Kishida were all politicians until January when Masafumi Mori was appointed to the role of special advisor as the only former bureaucrat.

Mori was an official at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, just like Izumi. While Izumi had been serving as director-general of the Housing Bureau before becoming special advisor, Mori had been the vice minister, indicating that he would basically respect the intentions of ministries.

Unlike Izumi, Mori doesn’t appear to be personally close to the chief Cabinet secretary or the prime minister.

Other than Kihara, those who have influence in the Prime Minister’s Office under Kishida are those in the team of secretaries led by Shimada, former METI vice minister.

Shimada and Takayoshi Yamamoto, Kishida’s personal secretary, serve as secretaries in charge of political affairs, while six secretaries in charge of administrative affairs were appointed — two from the Finance Ministry and one each from the Foreign Ministry, METI, the Defense Ministry and the National Police Agency (NPA).

The secretaries chosen from ministries are relatively more experienced than those who served in previous administrations, including Hirotaka Unami, who had been the deputy director-general of the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau, and Masayoshi Arai, former director-general of METI’s Commerce and Information Policy Bureau.

In dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, Izumi had been the key person in the Prime Minister’s Office during the second Abe administration and the Suga administration that followed.

In the Kishida administration, Unami, who has experience working as the Finance Ministry’s budget examiner in charge of healthcare spending, plays a central role along with Mori.

While Kishida’s secretaries are veteran bureaucrats, it is unlikely that the Prime Minister’s Office will unilaterally control the ministries as it did during the second Abe administration.

Shimada was vice minister at METI, and other secretaries are also expected to serve key posts in their ministries after they return. That means the decision-making system at each ministry will be respected.

Learning a lesson

A comparison of the two executive secretaries — Imai under Abe and Shimada under Kishida — as well as a comparison of special advisors — Izumi under Abe and Mori under Kishida — suggests Kishida is keen to place importance to a certain extent on a bottom-up approach and collaboration, unlike the Prime Minister’s Office under Abe which took strong control of ministries.

Kishida’s stance is also seen in appointing former NPA Commissioner General Shunichi Kuryu as deputy chief Cabinet secretary, while Sugita, who served in the role under Abe, used to be the head of the NPA’s Security Bureau.

The relationship between the LDP and the Prime Minister’s Office also changed in a similar way.

While the second Abe administration gradually leaned toward reflecting LDP factions’ intentions, the Prime Minister’s Office had a strong will to keep a firm grip on the party.

During the second Abe administration, the LDP’s key post of secretary-general had been filled by Shigeru Ishiba, Sadakazu Tanigaki and Toshihiro Nikai — politicians who maintain a certain distance from Abe. But Abe appointed lawmakers close to him — Hiroyuki Hosoda, Hakubun Shimomura, Koichi Hagiuda and Tomomi Inada — as executive acting secretary-general, apparently to keep an eye on the secretary-general.

On the other hand, Hiroshi Kajiyama, who currently serves as the LDP’s executive acting secretary-general, is close to both Akira Amari, who served as the LDP secretary-general when the Kishida administration was launched, and Toshimitsu Motegi, who took over the post.

Kishida meets and exchanges opinions with LDP Vice President Taro Aso and Motegi, and often holds four-member meetings with them and Matsuno.

Instead of telling them to come to his office, Kishida holds the meetings at outside locations, including at the LDP headquarters.

Under his leadership, Matsuno, Kajiyama and Tsuyoshi Takagi, head of the LDP’s Diet Affairs Committee — all of whom won a seat in the Lower House for the first time in 2000 — are working in close contact with each other to hammer out details on a working level.

One reason behind Kishida’s way of focusing on coordination seems to be the fact that Kochikai, led by Kishida, is the fourth largest faction in the LDP and it is indispensable for him to gain the cooperation of the top three factions, led by Abe, Aso and Motegi.

It is also notable that during last year’s LDP presidential election, Kishida was clearly setting the tone for the government and the party to have equal presence.

While drawing on how the Prime Minister’s Office took the lead in the second Abe administration, the Kishida administration is making some modifications, giving weight to coordination with ministries and the LDP and trying to reposition the Prime Minister’s Office as the cornerstone in this context.

While maintaining the leadership of the Prime Minister’s Office realized through political reforms, the Kishida administration is aiming to correct things deemed as representing an excessive concentration of power, taking into account criticism that ministries are intimidated and are performing pre-emptive acts to follow unspoken orders.


A grip on ministries

The problem is whether such a style of leadership actually works.

Following the global spread of infections with the omicron variant of COVID-19, the Prime Minister’s Office quickly decided to ban new entries of foreign nationals.

But the Prime Minister’s Office had to retract the request for airlines to halt inbound flight bookings in December, after it was found that the transport ministry’s civil aviation bureau hastily made the decision without consulting transport minister Tetsuo Saito and other related officials.

The education ministry also made a sudden reversal to its policy of not allowing close contacts of COVID-19 patients to take the unified university entrance exam in January after it was met with backlash.

The incidents indicate that the Prime Minister’s Office has not been able to put ministries under enough control.

In times of crisis management, such as coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is necessary for the Prime Minister’s Office to not only make swift judgments but also keep a sufficient grip on ministries.

If the Kishida administration fails to do so and omicron infections continue to increase, it could prove fatal for the LDP in the Upper House election scheduled for summer.

In addition, there are concerns over whether the Prime Minister’s Office is united within itself.

Abe had a strong cohesive power in his second administration, as he won the 2012 LDP presidential election in a runoff after coming second behind Ishiba in the first round of voting.

Abe also learned from the failures in his first administration, and his personality and conservative way of thinking attracted a lot of support from the start of his second administration.

In an interview with API for the book assessing his second administration, Abe said, “Everyone including myself wants to establish a stable administration, but it’s not that easy. I think the important thing is team play. When power collapses, it falls apart from inside. What matters to the Prime Minister’s Office is how it can maintain a cohesive power.”

Steering a government is not a straightforward task. It is full of ups and downs.

The second Abe administration faced a number of challenges over its seven years and eight months, including the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen scandals in which government officials are said to have given preferential treatment to school operators with ties to the prime minister.

Despite the challenges, the administration managed to survive because the Prime Minister’s Office, along with the government and the LDP, kept the team strongly united.

On the other hand, Suga was forced to step down after just over a year.

Kishida’s future all depends on whether he can strengthen his team’s collective power as advised by Abe.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs