Japan to review swelling Cabinet Office

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

JAPAN - The government and the Liberal Democratic Party will start reviewing the Cabinet Office's workload this month, as the administrative body has been swamped with ever-increasing duties and is now overseen by nine Cabinet ministers, up three from its launch in 2001.

The Cabinet Office was established to strengthen the functions of the Prime Minister's Office, but its workload expanded every time a new prime minister brought in his own agenda.

A swelling Cabinet Office is now doing more harm than good, according to many observers.

"We have more cross-sectional work and tasks that must be tackled by the Cabinet Office and ministries, and most of the workload is concentrated in the Cabinet Office and Cabinet Secretariat," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a meeting Friday of the House of Representatives' Budget Committee, underscoring his alarm about the present situation. "It's necessary to hand over tasks [finished by the Cabinet Office] to each ministry."

As part of the reorganization of the central government bodies in 2001, the Prime Minister's Office (Sorifu in Japanese and a different entity from the existing body with the same English name), the Economic Planning Agency and Okinawa Development Agency merged to become the Cabinet Office.

Initially six Cabinet ministers at the office took charge of such duties as gender equality, disaster management and science and technology policies. In addition, three senior vice ministers and three parliamentary secretaries were appointed to the office.

With changes of administration, duties such as anti-suicide measures, food education and support for the provision of compensation for damage incurred by the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1. nuclear power plant triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, were added to the workload, which have never been subject to streamlining or reduction.

Currently, there are nine Cabinet ministers, six senior vice ministers and seven parliamentary secretaries. "It's like a vacuum cleaner with no opening [to remove the dust]," one Cabinet ministers said. "It is about to explode."

Its structure has grown increasingly complicated. The number of employees at the Cabinet Office has increased to 2,895 from the initial payroll of 2,245. Of them, more than 20 percent are also doing jobs for their original ministries. For example, staff in charge of measures to deal with alcohol-related health problems at the Cabinet Office mainly work at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Some LDP members vented their frustration over how the Cabinet Office is handling its job. "It has become harder to know where responsibility lies because the Cabinet Office is now too big," a senior LDP member said at an LDP General Council meeting on Jan. 21. During the meeting, the General Council postponed giving its stamp of approval to a draft of the action plan for the government's growth strategy, overseen by the Cabinet Office, in an apparent rebuttal for insufficient prior consultation with key council members.

As early as this month, the LDP Administrative Reform Promotion Headquarters will review the Cabinet Office workload and propose a set of streamlining plans to the government.

"It's a very big issue that could lead to another reorganization of ministries and agencies," Tomomi Inada, the minister in charge of administrative reform who will oversee Cabinet Office streamlining, said at a press conference on Feb. 7. "I'd like to watch closely how LDP discussions will turn out."

Turf wars to protect sectional interests and fighting to pass on undesirable jobs to take to other ministries are expected to erupt when transferring work from the Cabinet Office to other ministries and agencies. "It requires tremendous political clout to unite ministries and agencies [under the same goal]," one observer said.