Media watch: You’re not in Kuroda’s league. You’re not even on the same planet

Japan’s weekly magazines and tabloids may not be bastions of journalistic integrity, but you can definitely count on them to stick it to the elites, especially those who toil in the public sector. On June 6, Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda, who controls the country’s money supply, commented during a lecture on the inflation that has taken over the world this summer. Unlike central banks in other countries, the BOJ has decided not to increase interest rates in order to counter price rises, and he dismissed people’s concerns by saying that Japanese households were capable of “absorbing these price increases.” Though there is apparently some academic-derived statistic used in the BOJ to chart “family-to-price-index tolerance,” the comment caused quite a stir in the media, especially in light of another remark Kuroda made several days earlier during an Upper House budget committee meeting. In response to a question of how he personally viewed these price increases, he admitted that he has had the experience of actually going to a supermarket and purchasing something, “but basically that’s my wife’s job.”

Later he apologized for both comments without denying that they reflected his thinking, thus proving, according to the weekly Josei Jishin, that he doesn’t really care about the Japanese public’s pain. The magazine wanted to know how he turned into such a cold fish, a somewhat academic question given the notion that, while the BOJ is, structurally, an independent entity, the government has indicated that it is very much a member of the team, so to speak, and thus Kuroda could be seen as one of the old boys in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who thinks they’ve been charged by God to run Japan forever. 

But, in fact, he’s not a member of the team. He’s so much more. According to Josei Jishin, Kuroda was born in 1944, the oldest of three children, to an officer in the coast guard, who moved around a lot to different port towns because of his job. When Kuroda was in 5th grade the family moved permanently to Setagaya Ward in Tokyo. In interviews, his sister has described him as a “calm” child who was not much into sports but good in school. A voracious reader, he allegedly read all 10,000 volumes in his local library. Consequently, he was able to get into a prestigious Tokyo high school whose students could often count on getting accepted to the University of Tokyo, and, in fact, he passed the entrance exam on his first try in 1963.

After graduating with a law degree in 1967 and passing the bar exam, he told his parents he wanted to be either a judge or an academic, and they tried to discourage him. His mother felt he didn’t have the temperament for a judge, and his father wondered if he could handle the competitive pressure of academia, where promotions and tenure depended on one’s ability to hustle. In the end, Kuroda decided to enter government service and he not only passed the civil service test easily, but got the second highest score for that particular session. 

He was scooped up by the treasury ministry, where he bided his time and did what he was told. It worked. By 1999, or four years prior to his mandatory retirement, he had ascended to the #2 position in the finance ministry (the new name of the treasury ministry), which essentially means he was the #1 bureaucrat there. Though he retired in 2003, his real “career” was just getting started. After 2 years as a professor at Hitotsubashi University, where he made a cool ¥12 million a year, he was appointed the governor of the Asia Development Bank, subsequently serving 3 terms at an annual salary of $480,000. Since 2013 he has held his current job at the BOJ where he made ¥35 million in 2020. When he finally does leave that position, he’ll get ¥45 million in severance pay. According to Josei Jishin’s calculation, Kuroda has earned ¥1.1 billion so far in his lifetime.

So, yeah, the gap between his existence and that of the average Japanese person is pretty enormous, a truth that’s perfectly illustrated by how he spends his money. In 2015, two years after becoming the BOJ governor, he bought a luxury condominium in Tokyo at auction for what various media estimate to be around ¥140 million—with cash. Usually, when somebody pays that much in cash for anything, the tax office is immediately in your face, but we can safely assume that Kuroda wasn’t inconvenienced in the least. On a recent installment of his web talk show, “Hitotsuki Mansatsu,” pundit Yuko Shimizu observed, “What makes me angry is how he has kept the interest rate close to zero in order to boost inflation and then buys an expensive condo with cash. He only expects regular people to borrow money.”

Former METI bureaucrat Shigeaki Koga told Josei Jishin that Kuroda isn’t the kind of guy who looks at the “micro” economy, meaning how the economy affects the individual. He’s a macro guy all the way, which means he not only can’t be bothered with how average people live, he can’t even imagine it. This, says Koga, is actually the typical attitude of a finance ministry careerist. It’s what the ministry looks for when they hire, and it’s what they cultivate over time. In other words, finance ministry people are elitist by definition. And when they retire, everyone wants to hire them—the term amakudari, which describes the semi-illegal practice of accepting cushy private sector jobs after retiring from a public sector job, was coined with finance ministry bureaucrats in mind. 

And it doesn’t stop there. Kuroda is 77 and has made more money—as a bureaucrat!—than he could ever hope to spend, and yet when he does leave his job at the BOJ, he is guaranteed to receive offers from foreign securities companies as an advisor or whatever, and from what Josei Jishin learned, such jobs usually come with salaries of 8 digits—yen, of course. No point in exaggerating what can’t be comprehended by mere mortals. 

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