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Politics

Abe beefs up staff with each ministry's best and brightest

Stronger prime minister's office mirrors moves by 10 Downing Street and Blue House

The Kantei, the Japanese prime minister's office and official residence, has become a stronger force in government under Abe. (Nikkei photo)

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has presided over a major increase in cabinet staffers, handpicking economic and national security advisers from various ministries to concentrate power in the executive branch.

The Cabinet Office and Cabinet Secretariat now have a combined staff of 3,638, a 17% increase from fiscal 2012, when Abe returned to the prime minister's seat. Compared with fiscal 2001, the year of a major government overhaul, the growth amounts to 33%.

The staff surrounding Abe has grown to a size similar to that of corresponding offices in the U.K. and Germany in recent years, and has become significantly larger than the U.S. president's.

A more robust Prime Minister's Office -- or Kantei, as the executive branch is known in Japanese -- has been Abe's goal since 2006, when he began his first, abbreviated stint in the office. Back then, Abe pledged "to fundamentally strengthen the functions of the Kantei" by creating a "framework for choosing support staff myself."

This first attempt was cut short by Abe's abrupt resignation in 2007. But he resumed the effort after a landslide general election win by his Liberal Democratic Party brought him back to office.

Abe's peers have also sought to put their stamp on government. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose Conservative party won a clear majority in this month's general election, seeks to create a strong new department for advancing Britain's global business interests, the Financial Times reported. South Korean President Moon Jae-in shook up the Blue House's staff in 2017 to put more emphasis on economic and security policies.

Leaders in both the U.K. and Japan, which have similar parliamentary systems of government, have pushed for stronger, more "presidential" executive branches. In Japan, the push is in part a reaction to the three years of rule by the Democratic Party of Japan, which critics say was a period of indecisiveness in government.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heads to a meeting with LDP Tokyo lawmakers on Dec. 18. Speculation surrounds potential candidates to succeed Japan's longest-serving modern leader. (Photo by Shihoko Nakaoka)

Two agencies constitute the Japanese prime minister's staff, broadly defined. The Cabinet Secretariat provides direct advice and support, while the larger Cabinet Office plays a role in drafting the government's top-priority policies.

The sharpest staff increase under Abe has been at the Cabinet Secretariat, which is now 54% bigger than in fiscal 2012 and nearly 2.5 times its size in fiscal 2001. This includes the personal secretaries to both Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, his right-hand man in government.

A milestone came in fiscal 2014 with the creation of both the National Security Secretariat and the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, which oversees the appointment of top bureaucrats. These two new bodies added about 200 people to the Cabinet Secretariat's ranks. Abe plans to add economic policy advisers to his national security team as soon as this year.

Abe's picks are rarely new hires. Most come from other government agencies, and since the overall number of national civil servants is subject to limits, the staff around the prime minister carries relatively more weight than before. The Cabinet Office and Cabinet Secretariat now make up more than 1% of the total -- double the proportion in fiscal 2003.

That is roughly similar to British and German levels. The staff of the U.K.'s Cabinet Office numbered 3,540 in September 2017, while that of the German Chancellery stood at 3,715 as of June 2016, according to a study by Japan's National Diet Library.

By contrast, the Executive Office of the President of the U.S. had only 1,891 staffers in September 2016, down from about 4,800 in 1970.

Satoshi Machidori, a professor of law at Kyoto University, says the reorganization under Abe has faced inherent limits.

"Most of the shift in functions from various ministries has been to the Cabinet Office, but the staff increase isn't sufficient," Machidori said. "As things stand, with restrictions on total number of civil servants, there ends up being a scrap-and-build approach within the bureaucracy."

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