Media Mix, Oct. 23, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about excessive overtime work for Kasumigaseki bureaucrats. As pointed out in the column, many civil servants have to stay late at the office in order to draft responses to questions from opposition lawmakers during committee debates in the Diet. Takao Komine, a former career-track bureaucrat mentioned in the column, wrote an article in which he detailed how the ministers and other ruling party lawmakers are verbally briefed by the relevant bureaucrats about the topic being discussed. The way Komine describes it, it’s an involved and time-consuming process, which means not only do the bureaucrats have to stay up at night doing research and then writing documents that the lawmakers will refer to during debate, they have to meet with the lawmakers before the debate and essentially coach them in how to answer the questions, presumably to prepare them for followup questions. It seems like a lot of work just for the purpose of creating some kind of illusion that the lawmaker knows what he’s talking about, because even Komine admits that the politicians who are appointed to head ministries and agencies usually don’t know much about what those ministries and agencies do. Consequently, it would save a lot of time and resources if the knowledgeable bureaucrats themselves answered the questions in person during the debate, and, on occasion, they do, but that, apparently, is not the ideal situation, since debates are political in nature and the ruling party lawmakers also have to defend policies under certain circumstances. In any case, there’s always a relevant bureaucrat on hand during debate. You’ll often see them whispering in the ears of ministers, who then just parrot what they heard.

All this work seems doubly wasteful since it is presumably being done for the sake of the media and, by extension, the public. The media, of course, is obliged to show up and report what is said during debates, but I have doubts if the average person pays much attention. Diet debates are notoriously boring (partially because they are scripted) and, in fact, don’t happen very often. The Diet is only in session for less than half the year*, so maybe the overtime issue isn’t as bad a problem as some people are making it out to be, but if they really wanted to solve it they should just have the bureaucrats do all the talking. Who needs politicians anyway?

*Corrected Oct. 24

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