To the still small library of books on Japanese public policy in English, Masahiro Mogaki adds a well-focused study of the Japanese state and its core executive in Understanding Governance in Contemporary Japan. This is a well-evidenced analysis, finds Hajime Isozaki, but its elite perspective may not easily convince critics who see Japanese governance through more corporatist or pluralist lenses.
Can the Japanese government still control its own ICT environment and set effective anti-trust policies in the digital era?
Understanding Governance in Contemporary Japan: Transformation and the Regulatory State. Masahiro Mogaki. Manchester University Press. 2019.
How should national governments (however big or small) grasp and propose appropriate remedial measures to the current intricated relationships among citizens, governments and tech giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple (GAFA)? Studying how a powerful but mid-sized country, such as Japan, fixes the contents of its regulations can offer some important lessons. Here Masahiro Mogaki’s book, Understanding Governance in Contemporary Japan, is both timely and informative.
The book covers Japanese policy-making on both information and communication technology (ICT) and anti-trust regulations, which are not necessarily regulated by a single agency and consequently are not necessarily discussed side by side. It considers from a comparative perspective how states can be transformed differently in response to apparently similar exogenous shocks – as when the growth of giant multinational companies is now allegedly posing similar challenges to countries. Mogaki primarily probes into these issues through conducting extensive elite interviews in Japan, but also makes reference to some equivalent cases in the UK and New Zealand.
The author’s task is to try to understand how the Japanese state has been reconstituted since the 1980s from a heavily state-planned, development economy into a more modest regulatory state today. Mogaki chiefly takes an ‘elites matter’ standpoint, seeing the state as an asymmetrically resourceful and dominant entity in the society (14). He writes:
During the era of the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) government, the core executive [a group of key state actors composed of related Cabinet ministers, party politicians outside the cabinet and civil servants (24)] pursued discretionary regulation within inner regulatory policy communities as a strategy to sustain its position of asymmetric dominance over actors within key policy sectors, with their actions shaped by a particular set of structures.
The book begins with an analytical framework that makes particular reference to the concept of the ‘core executive’. The author then explains and analyses what happened to Japanese regulations in the two domains of ICT regulation and anti-monopoly policies. The text draws on extensive testimonies from ‘insider’ witnesses of these events. Mogaki concludes by synthesising the findings of his extensive research into the historical trajectories of these two policy areas. He also elaborates on the degree to which his analytical framework can comprehensively explain different outcomes among different policy domains and different countries.
The ‘core executive’ analytical framework developed rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s to understand and explain how political power is distributed and exerted in the British government. It followed after some rather dualistic UK debates between advocates of the traditional concept of a collegial ‘cabinet government’ and those of a more hierarchical ‘prime ministerial government’ concept, as witnessed by the abrasive leadership style of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The concept of a core executive was introduced by Patrick Dunleavy and R.A.W. Rhodes to accommodate highly diverse patterns of coordination and decision-making across different policy areas in practice. It stressed that power among key actors is determined in a relational manner (see also Martin J. Smith 1999).
Several things make Mogaki’s research distinctive here. First, he extends the range of the Japanese core executive beyond the executive branch of the government, to include key ruling-party politicians. Second, he combines the core executive concept with elitist perspectives to explain the changing but also enduring structure of Japanese governance arrangements.
The continuities of elite power are buttressed by persuasive evidence that a small-scale non-statutory institution, the ‘preliminary examination system’ of the long-term ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), for a long time systematically granted LDP backbenchers a critical influence in all stages of policy-making process inside the government (39). This seems to stand in stark contrast to other parliamentary system countries, such as the UK, where strong party whips have long marginalised the roles of backbench MPs. (However, the House of Commons behaved far more ambitiously and independently during the exceptional ‘hung Parliament’ period of protracted Brexit negotiations from 2017 to 2019. Yet early indications are that the December 2019 election’s restoration of a single-party majority government has returned the UK almost back to its traditional patterns of governance.)
Mogaki observes that while the influence of Japanese backbenchers in the dominant party has declined in modern times, the relative power both of frontbenchers and top civil servants has increased. It is particularly remarkable that in spite of the fact that ministries have shifted their roles a great deal since the 1980s towards being ex-post, rule-based regulators, and many long-serving area-specialised politicians have withdrawn from political life since the 2000s, a more politicised unstable policy-making with no strategic planners has resulted (162).
On the other hand, it is not so plainly evident that Mogaki provides conclusive evidence that the Japanese core executive is as fully ‘asymmetrically dominant’ as his elitist viewpoints posit. Some longstanding explanations of the Japanese polity and society still seem to keep the field – such as a corporatist perspective (‘corporatism without labor’ (T.J. Pempel and Keiichi Tsunekawa 1979), or a pluralist perspective (such as Michio Muramatsu and Ellis S. Krauss’s ‘patterned pluralism’ and Masahiko Aoki’s ‘bureau-pluralism’). Some cases in the ICT policy arena show that other actors than politicians and top civil servants have sometimes been influential. For instance, a monopolistic company (the NTT, or the Nippon Telegraph and Telecommunication Company) was powerful enough to block legislation against their interests through lobbying (40-41). Perhaps we need more concrete evidence of the marginality of other societal actors in order to contend that the Japanese core executive as a whole has maintained an asymmetrically dominant position in policy-making and implementation (144).
Yet the book successfully gives detailed and consistent accounts of how the Japanese state has maintained its capacity to keep a grip on emerging issues in two policy areas, rather than being hollowed out by drastic changes in technologies and competitive environments. For instance, even the most contemporary and complex issues posed by GAFA are being addressed in forthcoming new regulatory legislation, which is supposed to be proposed to the Diet in 2020.
Overall, this book provides a well-evidenced narrative of how the Japanese state has been transformed into a regulatory state since the 1980s. It shows that the Japanese state or its core executive has played significant roles in each critical moment of this shift within both the ICT and anti-monopoly areas. Since the book is basically a retrospective on past policy processes in Japan, the analyses would be enriched by further probing into the ever-changing contexts of ICT and anti-monopoly regulations in a future where global enterprises are enhancing their comparative strengths and emerging as strong political actors against ‘smaller and weaker’ nation states. As the author shows with the Japanese case, each (reasonably substantial) country can respond somewhat distinctively to exogenous global challenges, guided by their different institutions, traditions and political systems.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.
Image Credit: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatory, North Tower (Manish Prabhune CC BY 2.0).