Profile : Bureaucrat Breaks Mold : Maverick author lambastes the culture of conformity in his native Japan.
Masao Miyamoto drives a sepia-colored Porsche, wears Italian designer clothes by Versace, eats French gourmet food and strives to cultivate a presence of “playfulness.”
This is a Japanese bureaucrat?
The Health and Welfare Ministry psychiatrist hardly fits the caricature of the Japanese worker-drudge in the ubiquitous gray suit pushing reams of paper until the wee hours every night. But it’s more than his personal style that sets Miyamoto apart and makes him the most controversial bureaucrat in Japan.
Breaking the code of silence, Miyamoto has lifted the veil on Japan’s powerful but oblique bureaucracy with a best-selling book, “Rules of a Government Office.” Using jarringly blunt language and a treasure of anecdotes, the book is a humorous but pointed critique of common bureaucratic practices such as ghost-writing laws in the name of politicians, building empires at the expense of public policy and escaping accountability with vague bureaucratese.
But Miyamoto, who worked in the United States for 11 years at Cornell University’s School of Medicine and other hospitals, aims his sharpest barbs at Japan’s “cult of togetherness,” which he says bullies individuals who stick out and forces workers to sacrifice their personal lives for the sake of office harmony.
“The Japanese bureaucratic structure is held up by four columns, and the most important is to sacrifice your life for the sake of group expansionism,” Miyamoto says. The other mainstays are women’s inferiority to men, the seniority system and lifetime employment, he adds.
“Togetherness is almost more important than the content of work. It’s almost like a religion.”
The book has earned him the enmity of many of his colleagues at the Health and Welfare Ministry, where he handles quarantined items for customs. They regard him not as a turncoat and a lazy whiner with neither the professional standing nor the ministry experience to legitimately critique the system.
“He doesn’t do any work at all,” said one colleague, recalling as a typical incident the time Miyamoto fell asleep at a Parliament hearing when he was supposed to be taking notes for the ministry. (After that, he was nicknamed “Sleepy Miyamoto.”)
Other colleagues say Miyamoto’s abrasive style has rendered him ineffective by alienating him from others. He called a fellow worker a “pig” to his face, colleagues say, and embarrassed the ministry by refusing to shake hands with a visiting group of leprosy patients.
He was even written up in a local magazine after he paid only $700 of a $2,000 bill at a fancy French restaurant because, among other things, the restaurant would not prepare champagne with raspberry juice as he ordered. His colleagues contend the incident underscores Miyamoto’s petulant nature.
Miyamoto himself says he’s been shunned as “a heretic” and received critical letters from people upset, for instance, that a public servant being paid with tax revenues used work hours to write a book.
But he says he’s also been backed by many others, including the ministry’s labor union and other bureaucrats who are afraid to openly support him for fear of jeopardizing their careers. The book itself has been a surprise hit with the public, selling 170,000 copies.
And even his detractors grudgingly concede that many of Miyamoto’s criticisms are on the mark.
The 44-year-old psychiatrist may be a bureaucrat whose time has come.
Japan’s new government, led by reformist Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, has also begun campaigning for “bureaucratic reform.” The goals are to shift policy-making power back to politicians, instill more personal responsibility and make the national budget reflect public interests rather than bureaucratic turf wars.
But whether the convergence of Miyamoto’s book and Hosokawa’s ascension augurs well for a new era of bureaucratic reform is still very much in question. The bureaucrat himself says, “I’m not optimistic.
“Power in Japan is held 90% by bureaucrats and only 10% by politicians,” he says. “To increase political power in Japan, politicians have to become real lawmakers. But 90% of politicians are inept at making law.”
This view is shared by others, Miyamoto says. He was told as much by his boss when he first joined the ministry in 1986 after his stint in the United States and was astonished to find that despite Japan’s constitutional separation of powers, bureaucrats were the ones writing laws.
Bureaucrats also wrote the answers to questions for politicians at parliamentary hearings and told nominally independent expert committees exactly what conclusion to reach on various issues, Miyamoto says.
When the befuddled bureaucrat asked his boss why ministry officials were performing what is constitutionally the politicians’ role, he was bluntly told: “A lot of politicians aren’t capable of writing laws. Their main job is to construct bridges and the Shinkansen (bullet train) in local areas.”
The system leaves no one accountable for political and government decisions, Miyamoto says. Unlike the U.S. notion of “the buck stops here,” he says, the Japanese system deliberately strives to avoid holding any individual accountable.
The result: extremely fuzzy language. In fact, when he was first asked to translate a document, he found he couldn’t because the vague Japanese wording simply couldn’t be rendered into intelligible English. He finally gave up.
Ultimately, Miyamoto says he learned the basic rules of bureaucratese:
1. Make it vague so it’s not clear who is responsible.
2. Try to maintain the status quo.
3. Write a sentence that satisfies everyone.
The compulsion to constantly expand turf also results in bad policy or in projects lingering on, he says. He once suggested that a ministry bureau charged with overseeing national hospitals was obsolete and should be eliminated. As a result, he was harshly reprimanded and told never to suggest ways to reduce bureaucratic territory.
But Miyamoto’s biggest shock, he says, was the “cult of togetherness.”
Miyamoto was surprised to find that bureaucrats routinely worked until 10 or 11 p.m. but spent much of that time in idle gossip, reading the newspapers and other non-productive work.
Once, during the budget process, Health Ministry officials called a meeting for 4 p.m. Although Miyamoto had scheduled a dinner for 7 p.m. that night with his girlfriend, who was returning to the United States the next day, he figured there would be plenty of time.
He was wrong. The meeting began with “free talking,” which extended into two hours of discussing topics such as what to order for dinner that night. As the clock moved toward 7 p.m. and the bureaucrats had not even begun discussing the budget issue, Miyamoto began to panic. He got up, told his colleagues he was going to the bathroom--and sneaked off to the restaurant.
“If that meeting had been important, of course, I would have sacrificed my private life,” Miyamoto says he told his boss the next day. “But it was just a private chat.”
The outraged boss responded: “You’re too Americanized! I have to change your nature.”
Still, however non-productive such “togetherness” rituals may seem to Americans, they serve to cement bonds among Japanese employees that are highly effective in creating teamwork and a sense of unified purpose--values that helped boost Japan into the economic power it is today.
Miyamoto concedes as much but says the system is outdated and needs to allow more flexibility and individuality to cope with the challenges of a fast-moving technological world.
A Tokyo native, Miyamoto comes from a family of physicians dating back 14 generations. He was reared mainly by his mother and grandmother because his parents divorced when he was about 4 years old. Although he says he was a quiet and shy boy, he also recalls a small streak of nonconformity even then. Despite school rules against wearing neck scarves in the winter, for instance, he did it anyway.
After graduating from Nihon University of Medicine in 1973, he decided he wanted to pursue psychiatry. Because that is a relatively underdeveloped field in Japan, he transferred to the United States and did his residency at University of Minnesota Medical Center and Cornell University Medical Center. He was also an associate professor in psychiatry at Cornell and New York Medical Center.
He returned to Japan for family reasons.
Since Miyamoto began refusing to work long hours of overtime and speaking out, he has been shipped to the Office of Quarantine at the Port of Yokohama, a post widely regarded as a career dead-end. But the psychiatrist says he made a conscious decision that he would prefer a quality private life to career success.
He has become a sought-after speaker, delivering lectures with such jarring titles as “Envy, Discrimination and Masochism: the Foundation of Japanese Society.”
Among other things, the speeches argue that Japanese psychological development is in a state of arrested adolescence because of child-rearing practices here. As a result, he argues, many people have a difficult time dealing with negative emotions such as envy and aggression, which gives rise to the compulsion to avoid individual differences or direct conflict.
His speeches have been called “jaw-dropping” by the American Chamber of Commerce, one of the many groups he has spoken to in Tokyo.
With such blunt talk, Miyamoto probably won’t win many friends. And because he appears not to command the wide respect of his colleagues, he may, like Don Quixote, end up simply tilting at windmills.
But that doesn’t seem to deter him. He has no plans to quit his job, and he has every intention of continuing to trumpet his own message of reform.
“I don’t mind if someone wants to spend his whole life working,” Miyamoto says. “The problem arises when they try to impose that value on me.”
Megumi Shimizu of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.
* Name: Masao Miyamoto
* Title: Director, Office of Quarantine at Port of Yokohama, Ministry of Health and Welfare
* Age: 44
Personal: Graduated from Nihon University of Medicine. Residency at University of Minnesota Medical Center and Cornell University Medical Center. Associate professor in psychiatry at Cornell and New York Medical Center. Joined Japan’s Health Ministry in 1986. Author of controversial best-seller “Rules of a Government Office.” A native of Tokyo, he is unmarried.
* Quote: “I don’t mind if someone wants to spend his whole life working. The problem arises when they try to impose that value on me.”