Paul James Cardwell, School of Law, University of Sheffield [About | Email]

Volume 5, Issue 1 (Book review 2 in 2005). First published in ejcjs on 22 April 2005.

Richard A. Colignon and Chikako Usui (2003) Amakudari: The Hidden Fabric of Japan's Economy, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, Hardback, ISBN: 0-8014-4083-I, 224 pages.

Amakudari: The Hidden Fabric of Japan's Economy is a comprehensive, accessible and thought-provoking work into a specific and distinctive feature of Japan's administrative and economic arrangements: the amakudari, or 'descendent from heaven'. Richard A. Colignon and Chikako Usui developed the book based on an earlier article on amakudari published in 2001. Their research draws on statistical and biographical data, and the extensive use of interviews with Japanese bureaucrats during their respective visiting fellowships at Tokyo University and Kyoritsu Women's University 1997-8.

As a work of social science, the book analyses the workings and significance of amakudari without making judgments either on whether it assists or harms the Japanese economy or the success of the reforms underway since the mid 1990s. They thus avoid questions of whether amakudari is akin to an 'old boy' network (Schaede 1995), or consists of a 'gravy train' impervious to change (Hayes 2000). Their work does, however, place amakudari within the context of decision-making in Japan, the nature of relationships between the public and private sectors, and the ongoing processes of change in the Japanese economy.

Previous literature in the English language on amakudari has been sporadic, and although it appears in the recent works on changes in the Japanese administrative and economic model, few authors have attempted a holistic view. As an informal process which is regulated by law in only a few narrowly defined categories, the authors offer their definition of amakudari:

personnel retirement paths linking the central bureaucracy to its wider environment, identifying the domain of operation for the ministry of origin, establishing the boundaries of its territory, and attempting to secure its own legitimacy. (p.29)

In a practical sense, these retirement paths take four forms: bureaucrats moving into profit-making enterprises ('strict amakudari' and subject to legal restrictions); bureaucrats moving into public corporations (yokosuberi or 'sideslip'); bureaucrats having successive appointments in the public or private sectors (wataridori or 'migratory bird') or bureaucrats moving into the political world, for example by becoming election candidates to the Diet (seikai tensin).

With this differentiation of the amakudari network in practice, Colignon and Usui devote individual chapters to each of these levels. This allows them to go beyond the previous approaches of viewing amakudari as a static structural feature of Japan's political economy, and to discuss the historical and cultural contexts of this institution.

Chapter 2 discusses the nature of amakudari as an institution, rather than simply an ad hoc movement of individuals according to personal preferences. This chapter explains the development of amakudari in the post-war period. By placing it in the context of the career paths of the bureaucrats, the authors show that the institutional network of amakudari is a product of the structural patters of higher education (Tokyo University being the alma mater of most top bureaucrats) and the cultural milieu of a 'legitimate elite based on merit'(p.32).

The authors illustrate the legislative limitations on amakudari but contend that these have not and do not fully explain the ways and means by which amakudari as an institution has developed. Indeed, changes to Japan's economy, such as privatisation, have created new opportunities for amakudari. Even more recent changes to public administration introduced following increased public dissatisfaction with government in the mid-1990s, will not, in the authors' opinion, affect amakudari practices. In spite, therefore, of a lack of extensive legislation or regulation, the authors present alternative justifications for their presentation of amakudari as an institution:

Amakudari placements are conscious, self-interested efforts on the part of bureaucrats and the administrative units of each ministry to gain deferred compensation for individual bureaucrats and to claim sectoral turf for the ministry. The placements of ex-officials create and maintain representatives who define and monitor the boundaries of the ministry's sectors, cultivate policy networks, and represent ministry interests. The combination of the rational self-interests of individuals with administrative rationality explains the drive behind amakudari placements. These processes are institutionalized in the sense that they are conscious and calculated strategies coordinating the logistics of amakudari, yokosuberi, and wataridori. (p. 50)

The rationale for treating amakudari as an institution, rather than a series of ad hoc informal processes is convincing. They demonstrate the systematic nature of the way in which the ministries find places for their departing bureaucrats and the cultural norms and expectations this has created. This applies to both the bureaucrats themselves and the public or private entities who benefit from the knowledge and experience of the amakudari.

The following four chapters analyse each of the levels of the amakudari institution, using empirical data drawn from various Japanese sources and fleshed out with interviews (helpfully, the authors include their interview structure and cover letter as an appendix).

Chapter 3 looks at amakudari in its narrowest sense; that of the movement of retiring bureaucrats from the ministries to positions in the private sector. Their initial observation from the data of the National Personnel Administration is that the number of amakudari has been in decline, following a long increase from the early 1960s until its peak in 1985, when the annual figure stood at 320. This recent decline may have been in reaction to more negative media coverage of amakudari since the mid-1990s, in conjunction with the reforms of Japan's administrative system increasing being under the spotlight. That said, data from other sources reveal that whilst the number of amakudari originating from ministries such as the Ministry of Finance did indeed decline, there was nevertheless an increase in the number of amakudari originating from the external agencies operating at arms length from the Ministries, such as the National Tax Agency. The percentage number of former bureaucrats on the boards of all private listed companies was therefore roughly stable, at about 2%. The authors apply the resource dependency model (Calder 1989, Richardson 1997) by analysing amakudari in terms of the size of company that they are appointed to, the location of the company, keiretsu affiliation, and the specific industry of the company in involved in. This reveals the type of firm most associated with amakudari (larger keiretsu-affiliated firms, located in the Kanto area, and engaged in the banking, service and insurance sectors) and suggest strong linkage between 'the most powerful segments of the bureaucracy and the more established segments of the private sector' (p.80). Despite the apparent decline in the number of amakudari since 1985, it remains a significant consideration in understanding the relationship between the bureaucracy and the private sector.

Chapter 4 concentrates on yokosuberi, which differs from the above in that the retired bureaucrat moves to a public, rather than private, corporation. Reminding us that the apparent fall in the number of amakudari since 1985 was not reflected by the rather more stable prevalence rates of ex-bureaucrats on the boards of private companies, the authors see yokosuberi as an alternative to the 'pure' amakudari described above. As these movements are not subject to the same legal limitations as 'pure' amakudari, they are in a sense less visible, but the importance of the public corporations as the 'arms and legs' of the central ministries should not be underestimated (p.83). Yokosuberi not only provide the link between the corporations and the ministries, but, according to the authors, are one of the tools of control used to ensure accountability. The authors use a case study of the Japan National Petroleum Corporation (JNPC) in order to illustrate the complexity of the relationships between the hazy frontiers of the public/private divide in Japan. Taken in conjunction with the findings in Chapter 3, the authors clearly demonstrate that when amakudari and yokosuberi are considered together, the latter seems to have acted as an alternative method for the post-retirement employment positions of ministry bureaucrats.

The next chapter further enlarges the scope of research of amakudari by analysis of wataridori, the 'migratory bird'. There is a shift in focus from the initial placing of a retired bureaucrat in a public or private body, to the subsequent positions that he may occupy. This indirect process has thus escaped detailed attention, yet adds weight to their arguments that amakudari placements are not merely informal and occurring on an individual basis, but institutionalised:

Amakudari and yokosuberi placements, as components of wataridori, are consciously calculated, ministry-level operation necessary for maintaining a reemployment circuit involving elite positions across the private and public sectors. (p.112).

The authors recognise the difficulty with analysis of wataridori as either a formal or informal process in that the movements of retired bureaucrats through successive posts enlarges the potential structure within the Japanese public and private sectors. However, by demonstrating that wataridori are an integral part of amakudari, and the movement of former bureaucrats from post-to-post within the public and private sectors reveals much about the structural nature of ministries. Since five ministries dominate the amakudari, yokosuberi and wataridori placements, the authors show that the institutionalised, strictly coordinated and logistical processes are a means by which the ministries mobilise influence and power. As an indirect means by which the ministries are able to maintain this influence and power, wataridori is an essential means by which the larger structural picture can be comprehended.

The final empirical aspect of amakudari is seikai tensin; movement to the political world. The interaction between the bureaucratic and the political world is thus the final side of what was known as Japan's 'iron triangle', the closeness between the bureaucratic, political and business elites. Colignon and Usui begin their examination from viewing seikai tensin as varying in intensity and over time, rather than either permanently fixed or fluid. They examine several other factors which explain the changing patterns of seikai tensin, including why it seems to be in decline. These factors include the rise of zoku politicians (LDP career politicians expertly trained in specific policy issues), the changes in factional leadership in the LDP and the enforcement of LDP seniority, and the rise in hereditary politicians in the post-war period. All of these have become more evident in recent years. This is followed by an evaluation of the data of those in political office since 1945 extended to the prime ministers and cabinet members of the Diet. Data on their university affiliation and the presence of other politicians in their families is used in order to ascertain which of the above factors has been responsible for the apparent decline in seikai tensin. The authors find a complex picture, since the recent examples of prime ministers who were once bureaucrats are few and far between, yet this is not borne out by statistics on cabinet and Diet members, where seikai tensin appears to remain relatively stable over time. They conclude therefore that it is still possible to suggest that 'elite integration' occurs, although with changing characteristics. The real picture of closeness between the bureaucracy and the political office lies between proponents of the strong model of the 'iron triangle' and those who claim that this model no longer adequately explains the nature of Japan's government and economy.

The final chapter, 'amakudari as a Power Structure', brings together the findings of the previous four empirical chapters in order to assess the role, functions and importance of amakudari in Japanese society. As a 'power structure', amakudari serve as the 'arms and legs' of the central bureaucracy and create interdependency between the public and the private sectors, and the political world, especially when wataridori are included in the equation. Amakudari, when considered alongside other factors, such as the importance of Tokyo University graduates at the highest levels of power, can be considered an institution, whose networks create a power structure:

The concept of a power elite does not imply that all aspects of a society can be created or stopped even by the most organized and self-conscious power elite. An elite power structure involving the major institutional hierarchies of society merely participates in the decision of national consequence that are made; it does not control history. (p.180)

Whether this power structure is a help or hindrance to Japan's economy is not one of the themes of the book, since the authors aim to show the characteristics of amakudari as an institution, yet they end the work by considering the 'crisis of legitimacy within Japanese institutions and the increased criticism of amakudari'. Given the complex webs of norms, values and orientations which surround amakudari as a network, institution and power structure, dismantling this key component of Japan's society and economy will not be an easy task if so undertaken.

Amakudari: The Hidden Fabric of Japan's Economy is a welcome addition to the literature on post-bubble economy Japan. As an academic study, it is primarily of interest to scholars of Japan's government and economy and those (such as this reviewer) with a more general interest in changing patterns of governance and regulation. The title seems to suggest that the effect of amakudari on the economy of Japan is the focus, however, the authors demonstrate the importance of the institution within Japanese society as a whole. The clarity of the language, avoidance of over-use of technical Japanese terms and the placing of amakudari in its wider context make it potentially useful reading matter for anyone aiming to better understand a little known concept.


Calder, Kent (1988) Crisis and Compensation: Public Policy and Political Stability in Japan, 1949 – 1986, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Colignon, Richard A. and Usui, Chikako (2001), The Resilience of Japan's Iron Triangle: Amakudari, Asian Survey 41(5), pp.865-95.

Hayes, Declan (2000), Japan's Big Bang: The Deregulation and Revitalization of the Japanese Economy, Boston: Tuttle.

Richardson, Bradley (1997,) Japanese Democracy: Power, Coordination, and Performance, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Schaede, Ulrike (1995), The 'Old Boy' Network and Government-Business Relationships in Japan, Journal of Japanese Studies 21(2), pp.293-317.

About the Author

Paul James Cardwell is Lecturer in Law in the School of Law, University of Sheffield. He specialises in Public and EU law, and has studied at the Universities of Warwick, Lille, Bordeaux and Nagoya, where he held a research scholarship from the Association of International Education Japan, 1999-2000. He also undertook a five-month research period at the Delegation of the European Commission in Tokyo. Although his primary research interests lie in the law and politics of the EU, in particular the Common Foreign and Security Policy, he maintains a keen interest in the law and international relations of Japan.

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