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Politics

Young Japanese bureaucrats drop a bombshell on old habits

Blunt report urges an end to 'silver democracy' and 'GDP supremacy'

Young officials at Japan's industry ministry

TOKYO -- Around 30 up-and-coming Japanese bureaucrats have touched a nerve with a report critiquing the country's rigid social structures and institutional malaise.

The 65-page document, titled "Anxious individuals, nation at a standstill," was compiled in May by officials from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, following a series of study sessions dating back to last summer. The team has won praise for provoking debate -- as well as criticism for overstepping their bounds.

The report is certainly a departure from the typical bureaucratic boilerplate. It urges the country to break away from "silver democracy" -- a description of the way the working generation supports the elderly. Instead, it suggests prioritizing investment in children and education. 

The young officials contend that while the values of Japanese people have changed, the country's systems remain static due to deep-seated ideas about retirement age, pensions and nursing care.

The project was spearheaded by Ikuro Sugawara, a former vice industry minister, alongside selected officials who applied to take part. According to the ministry, the report has been downloaded more than 1.4 million times and has sparked a flurry of discussion on social networks like Facebook. 

One ministry insider, who holds a post senior to the project members, framed the endeavor in a positive light -- particularly because it trained the participants to back up claims with their own data, not someone else's.

On the other hand, the report has triggered plenty of objections -- a common one being that government officials should keep their noses out of public values.

"What our country really needs"

Yuya Uno, 31, a project member who deals with radioactive waste management at the ministry's Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, acknowledged that bureaucrats need to "know their place." But he also said they had been too afraid to speak out -- until now.

As for the criticism about meddling in social values, Uno said the country's systems are built on those very principles. Therefore, the government will inevitably step into that territory at times.

Some officials from other ministries and agencies, meanwhile, condemned the participants for veering too far from their regular responsibilities -- centering on trade, industry and energy policy.

The industry ministry sees things differently, according to Chizuru Suga. The 37-year-old project leader said, "Whatever we do, the [ministry] would not say, 'It's not your job.'"

Suga obtained an MBA in the U.S. Her work has covered everything from support for developing countries to climate change measures and the "Cool Japan" culture promotion initiative. She is currently in charge of developing industries geared to education and the elderly, working in a group under the ministry's Commerce and Information Policy Bureau. One senior ministry official said her career is on an upward trajectory.

The goal of the report, Suga said, was to "frankly debate what our country really needs."

Another participant was Keigo Hidaka, 37, who handles education reform in the same unit as Suga. In the report, he proposed drawing on private-sector services and advanced technology in pursuit of a better education system.

"Schoolteachers are exhausted" from excessive workloads, he said.

"I want to change the self-sufficiency principle in the public education system," Hidaka added, "by promoting the introduction of information technology and outsourcing [supervision of] extracurricular activities."

A proposal from Takanori Ito, 26, called for unleashing the power of individuals. Ito -- who works in a ministry bureau focused on science, technology and the environment -- cited the village of Shimojo, Nagano Prefecture, where residents developed roads and other infrastructure on their own.

Ito had taken a business trip there and was surprised to find villagers doing the roadwork. He said it shows how willing and competent individuals can take on roles normally handled by public authorities. For rural governments with tight finances, Shimojo might hint at solutions.

Mai Adachi, 30, agreed with the idea of having the private sector take on more public-sector roles. Adachi handles fintech -- the combination of finance and IT -- at the ministry's Economic and Industrial Policy Bureau. She said that when she interviewed a senior executive of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding, she got the sense that "advanced companies rise above the nation."

Still another participant, 28-year-old Keiichi Ishiwata, questioned the "supremacy" of gross domestic product in the government's thinking.

Ishiwata works on trade promotion at the ministry's Trade and Economic Cooperation Bureau. His analysis focused on the paradox that growing per capita GDP is not necessarily accompanied by rising individual satisfaction. 

The priorities, he suggested, should be strengthening the social fabric and prolonging healthy life expectancy.

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