Life of Bureaucrats at Kasumigaseki

By Ichiro Suzuki Working for the government has long been highly prestigious among able young men and women for decades. It has been that way since the 1870s when Japan had entered its modern era, ditching a long, long period of rule by samurais: the Tokugawa shogun and feudal lords. Jobs at bureaucracy drew aspiring young talents not only by intellectual stimulation of drawing grand designs for the country but also by a sense of pride attached to it. In addition, after WWII, bureaucracy became the first place to embrace gender equality while the private sector wanted only young men. In recent years, government jobs are losing popularity especially among students at the University of Tokyo, the pinnacle of Japan’s education. In not so long ago as in 2010, a third of new bureaucrats stepping into Kasumigaseki, the government buildings district adjacent to the National Diet Building, came out of the University of Tokyo. In just ten years, the number has dropped to 17%. Applications for Kasumigaseki jobs overall, as measured by the number of exam takers, have almost halved in a quarter century. This spring, 14% fewer people took the exam than a year ago. Bright young men and and women are becoming less and less interested in a career as a bureaucrat. The number one reason behind lower popularity of government jobs are their punishing work hours. Officially, it is said they work overtime hours of 80 a month, and that’s a lot of work to begin with. Anecdotal stories, however, suggest that such overtime hours are vastly understated. 80 hours could be for a week, instead of a month. They are required to work such long hours in part because jobs at Kasumigaseki are so poorly designed. In the third decade of the 21st century, jobs are so inadequately digitalized that they continue to have to grapple with too much paper. Quite often, as public servants, they have to carry a stack of paper to make a presentation to members of parliament (MPs), (or Dietmen), on policy issues. These elected people are often as behind the times as their old men and women in their rural constituencies when it comes to embracing technology. They request bureaucrats a stack of paper, i.e. 20 copies of 40 page powerpoint presentation. One of the brightest young men and women have to say ‘Yes” to requests from elected officials, however unreasonable they might be, and they make photocopies by themselves. Bureaucrats are required to stay in the office on nights the Diet is in session, especially when the budget and the bills specifically related to their ministry are debated. They simply wait and wait through the night until something happens at the Diet. It is the duty of these people to help MPs on their questions and answers during the sessions. Such Q&A assistance requests may come in the last minute. When they get a call, they have to do it even if they were literally stepping out of the office to go home. Public servants are at the mercy of elected officials, some of whom hardly consider what troubles they are creating. Kasumigaseki is nowhere near ‘work-life balance’ that the Ministry of Health and Labor has been promoting in recent years. In fact, the Ministry of Health is the worst offender of what it preaches, amid onslaughts of COVID-19. Investment bankers with Goldman Sachs or consultants with McKinsey reportedly work as punishing hours as Japanese bureaucrats, perhaps as many as 110 hours a week at times. However, bankers and consultants commit those insane hours as the end of a major deal or a project nears. They often take some time of after it is done. For Japanese bureaucrats this goes a year round, and a year after year. Their vacations are short, usually nine days at most (a week and two weekends). Even worse, they are not properly compensated for their grueling work load, being paid for a fraction of their daunting overtime hours. They are still paid better than the private sector jobs on average. Nonetheless, their compensation is hardly comparable to high-end professional jobs. As young bureaucrats progress in their careers, their pay trails top notch private sector jobs distinctly. It is said that for under-secretary, the top bureaucrat in a ministry, annual income is a paltry 25 million yen ($230,000). In the U.S., young MBAs a few years out of business school would reach this amount. It wasn’t this way in the old days. High-ranked bureaucrats landed a lucrative job with an agency affiliated with the government or in an industry that they regulated. It was called ‘amakudari’ (descending from the heaven). However, such agencies have been scrapped in recent decades in the process of streamlining the bureaucracy. A practice of getting a second job after departure from Kasumigaseki came under a fierce attack by the media, which takes a special pleasure in stoking public anger on bureaucrats’ privileges. The media creates public uproar by bringing life of bureaucrats to light, showing how far out of reach it is for an average man on the street, though they never bother to tell about the number of hours and the intensity of pressure bureaucrats have to endure on their jobs. ‘Jealousy’ has a distinct place deep in the minds of Japanese psychology and is often a driver of a trend. For this reason of jealousy, it is highly unlikely that compensation packages for bureaucrats be revamped dramatically to make the job financially attractive for gifted young people. Such a package would almost certainly draw fierce public anger. Students at the University of Tokyo are reportedly greatly interested in starting their own company rather than becoming bureaucrats. Life of an entrepreneur would require as punishing hours as jobs at Kasumigaseki. With financial risks they take, they could be compensated materially better than working for someone else. On top of it, they have total control over what they do and how they live, instead of having to respond to unreasonable requests from stupid MPs. It is a good thing that bright young people are leaning toward a career as an entrepreneur. That’s exactly what the country needs at a time of waning competitiveness of Corporate Japan, which is another bureaucracy. Nonetheless, someone still has to do the work of drawing policy frameworks for the country. Who does this? About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.