Japanese and American Bureaucracy: Two Very Different Cultures

Japanese and American Bureaucracies

Two Very Different Organizational Cultures

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Japanese and American Bureaucracies

Two Very Different Organizational Cultures

A. The Lives of Administrators in Two Countries

There is very little in common between top career administrators in the United States and those in Japan, and this explains why Japanese career administrators are, in fact, the most important formulators of national policy, while in the U.S., the administrative officials have comparatively little power.

Top career administrators attend one of only two or three important universities, Tokyo University or Waseda University (in Kyoto) and earn a degree in law or economics. It must be emphasized that Japan is a hierarchical society. In feudal times, rank descended from family, but in the more modern era that rank comes from education and job position. The fact that Tokyo University and Waseda are ranked #1 and #2 among colleges cannot be overemphasized. During attendance at the university, relatively little time is devoted to studying. Rather, students devote their time to building relationships with their male classmates whom they will subsequently encounter during the rest of their career.

The field in which these top students enter, public administration, is one that is highly respected and admired within Japan. This is a function, partly, of Japanese tradition. The samurai class, the warrior class, that ruled Japan under the Tokugawas became the administrative class, and even in warrior days, this class put a high value on education. Another reason for which this class is highly admired and respected is because they are perceived as the backbone of decision-making in an "embattled nation." Unlike the United States, Japan is highly vulnerable to external events such as the oil crisis, an embargo, or a tariff. In Tokugawa times, the administrative Samurai class regulated local villages, and the same class lead Japan through the very hard tasks of industrialization (1870-1900) and re-industrialization (1945-1955). In all of these national crises, the administrative class showed its effective leadership. Even the defeat in World War II is placed, by Japanese, on the shoulders of the military, not the bureaucracy. As a result, to enter this top bureaucratic elite is considered highly honorable.

The administrative elite, correspondingly, possesses considerable power and, more importantly, influence. Japan is sometimes viewed as being ruled by three interlocking circles: the LDP, the bureaucracy, and the Diet. In fact, two out of the three circles have relatively limited roles in government. The LDP, even ignoring its recent defeats, mainly has managed to maintain its grip on the government through a patronage system and by eschewing any ideology other than re-election. The Diet, similarly, doesn't pass that many laws and, further, frequently changes in membership. The actual interpretation and implementation of the Diet's law, then, falls to the bureaucracy. The three ring explanation of Japanese government, further, ignores the fact that the second most important force, the leading industrialists, are not included in this schematic, and the bureaucracy's dealings with the group tend to increase their influence as the bureaucrats in Japan are expected to "lead" the industrial corporations by setting national economic policy. Leadership, in this case, means arriving at a consensus among these leading industrialists as to goals with bureaucratic leaders acting as the "honest brokers."

The foregoing process of determining national policy would seem very complex and impossible, but, in fact, its consistently accomplished. This is due to the fact that the top industrialists, the LDP leaders, the prime minister, and the top bureaucrats, all share a common college background. To imagine a formal meeting and formulation process is to distort what really happens. A more accurate description would be to say that 20-25 old college classmates get together for beer and sushi every couple of months and, between courses, decide Japan's national policy.

Finally, it must be commented that Japan's bureaucracy has the power to make its influence felt at the local as well as the national level. In Japan, the policy of "gokusei shido" (administrative guidance) means that Tokyo sends out officials from the national government to insure that policy is being implemented in the countryside. This practice stems back to the time of the Heian Empire when relatives of the empire were sent out to administer distant provinces. The local officials adhere to this doctrine because, again, Japan is a very rank conscious society. Every local official knows that the bureaucrat sent out to "work with" his ministry attended a better college than he did and, therefore, is his superior.

To conclude, then, the bureaucratic elite in Japan, is the most important force, along with the key industrialists who are their work associates, in running the country.

In contrast, American top career administrators come from a wide variety of backgrounds and institutions and have relatively little power in the governing of the country. They major in a variety of subjects, and their population reflects the much greater diversity present in American society in terms of social classes, races, and location. Hence, this a highly heterogeneous group. If they share any common characteristics it is that, after their initial college degree, they may obtain a more generalist degree such as an MPA or an MBA.

Career administration in the United States is not considered a field of particular importance or prestige. Partly this relates to the traditional American distaste for government in any form as expressed by a certain politician who said "We must get government off our backs." His attitude dates back to the time of the Revolution or even Puritan New England. In the field of government administration, and even top government administration, come college students primarily attracted by its perceived security more than from a burning desire to change government. A top, creative student in the United States is far more likely to go to work into private industry or start his own company than to enter public administration.

Should a dedicated person enter public administration and work his or her way to a top level post, moreover, powers are extremely limited. Partly this is because each agency is heading by a politician who has an actual political agenda to accomplish, and yet does not stay for a long time (2 years average) to give consistent direction. Powers are also limited by the nature of American government that divide power between its three branches and shares power with local government. Also, the American government specializes in writing regulations that constrict bureaucratic power. Finally, the members of the bureaucracy, headed in Washington, have a great geographic area over which to promulgate the result of any important decision.

In conclusion, then the Japanese bureaucratic elite is concentrated, homogenous, and relatively powerful force in national governance. The bureaucratic elite in American society is fragmented, heterogeneous, and relatively weak.


B. How Differences in American and Japanese Governments
Effect their Operations

The easiest way in which to compare the constitution of the United States to that of Japan is to say that the United States is ruled by its constitution while Japan honors its constitution.

The United States Constitution and that of Japan appear very similar. Each sets up a basic framework of government. In the United States, the Constitution outlines a framework of government which is actually ruled by the president, Congress, and, at least implicitly, the Supreme Court. Each of those branches is supposed to "check and balance" the other in order to prevent the accumulation of power. The Japanese Constitution shares much of the same language as the United States Constitution, not surprising considering that Americans wrote the document and modeled it on the United States Constitution. The Japanese Constitution, however, establishes a Diet, or Parliament of two houses, and an executive headed by the Cabinet, in a blend of American and British practices. The Japanese retained their Emperor, again true to British practice, and, like the British monarch, he retains no power.

Both Constitutions share provisions for amendment that are difficult to achieve. Japan's Constitution has not been changed since its ratification. The United States Constitution, while it has changed, has not changed since World War II either when, again, it formed the basis for the Japanese Constitution.

The differences between the Constitutions derive more from what is not stated than what is stated. In the United States, a very legalistic society, the Constitution serves as the actual highest law in the land. When individuals have a question about a law or executive decision, the issue is resolved through the courts ending, ultimately, in the Supreme Court at which time the Constitution is interpreted. In Japan, in contrast, the courts do not serve this function. Hence interpretation of the Constitution comes to rely on the interpreters of its laws, the bureaucracy.

Further, the powers of the two constitutions are delegated in a totally different manner. In the Japanese Constitution, any powers not delegated explicitly to the people reside with the government. In the United States, in contrast, any powers not delegated in the Constitution explicitly do NOT belong to the government. Hence, even though Japan's Constitution explicitly ignores war, in fact, the Japanese do have an army and navy. In the United States, in contrast, such a clear violation of the Constitution would result in a Supreme Court case. Therefore, I say that Japan honors its Constitution, in the sense that there's a general avoidance of making law or policy that explicitly violates the Constitution, while the United States is ruled by its Constitution in that every law is written and interpreted in reference to the Constitution.

C. Japanese Government at the Petty Bureaucrat Level: The Train Ticket

My own case study contained the story of the lost Shinkansen ticket on the way to Tokyo. To recount, in my story, I boarded the train in Kyoto bound for Tokyo. When I arrived at Tokyo station, I couldn't find the ticket. The ticket person, the man taking the ticket, then tried to get me to give him the ticket. After a considerable amount of time spent in this activity, I wound up I getting away with not needing to buy a replacement ticket.

This incident shows several aspects of low-level Japanese government in practice. First, there was an insistence of procedure. The manager did not know how to respond, really, when I did not give him a ticket. Giving a ticket was the expected event in the "leaving the train procedure." When this did not occur, the ticket man could make no other response than to insist that it had to occur.

Second, there was no doubt, at any time, that I would simply disobey the law (or rule). Several times, in the course of those twenty minutes, I could've run away and the ticket taker could not have stopped me. Again, I believe this illustrates, as is typical, the Japanese total reliance on others acting in the "correct way." This is why so many American children are able to shoplift at off-base shops: no one can conceive of someone being this dishonest.

Third, this shows the reliance on paper. When I finally gave the man the written note, that fully satisfied him. Now, he had the required piece of paper to satisfy his superiors.

Finally, then, I think this study shows the low-level bureaucracy of Japan in action. They follow a procedure. Expected events occur. Paper is collected and stocked.


D. Japan and the United States:
A Military Interaction Anecdote

I would like to comment on Ray's speech "Prepared (?) for a briefing-- Stretching Across Language, Military, and Cultural Gulf(s)." In his story, he tries to prepare for a briefing with a trio of Japanese, a PhDed colonel and two doctors, about his program. When the Japanese enter the room, they appear very disoriented and want to give Ray a business card. He accepts theirs and finally starts his briefing. He proceeds through the briefing, stopping only for questions twice: once when he's told to "slow down" and the second time when the colonel wants to ask a question. Despite the fact that the other two doctors speak perfect English, they do not interrupt to help the colonel.

To understand what really occurred in this instance would help any newcomer to Japan. Basically, Ray felt frustration because he intended to actually give information, elicits opinions, the purpose of a briefing in American society; to the Japanese, however, the purpose this meeting was to form a relationship.

The first instance of this involved the business card. Japan is a hierarchical society. Everyone has a place and assignment. For women, this assignment comes from their husband, and for men, it comes from their job. Hence, the Japanese want to see a business card so that they can place the person to whom they're speaking; in Ray's case they needed to know the person with whom they should be forming the relationship.

Later, the Japanese lack of questions during the briefing did not indicate a lack of interest but rather an insistence on not getting the desired relationship off badly. Japanese culture has an extremely high respect for teachers and, in this situation, Ray was playing the role of the teacher. To interrupt him during his presentation, therefore, would be extremely unthinkable. If Ray's message was really important, they could always find that out later. It was, therefore, only when he asked the colonel directly that the colonel politely asked if he could speak slower.

Finally, the Japanese professors displayed, in their minds, the absolutely correct behavior by not interrupting their leader in his speech with the American. To interrupt their leader might've been to imply that their leader did not know his subject or English, which would be insulting. Further, it would damage the relationship they were hoping to form in the first place.

To conclude, then, Ray's encounter with the Japanese shows totally different cultural norms and values. What Ray perceived as a very unsatisfactory briefing may, to the Japanese, seem totally satisfactory, and the reverse.

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