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Profile : Bureaucrat Breaks Mold : Maverick author lambastes the culture of conformity in his native Japan.


TOKYO — 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."

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