Japan Watchdog Warns over Dwindling Prospects for Civil Service due to Long Hours

The Yomiuri Shimbun
National Personnel Authority President Yuko Kawamoto speaks at a meeting in Sendai on Wednesday.

The National Personnel Authority (NPA), addressing the current working environment for the nation’s civil servants, raised concerns of a worsening crisis stemming from the long working hours that have been ingrained in the sector, which has led to reduced job applicants and a growing exodus of young workers.

NPA President Yuko Kawamoto stressed Wednesday in Sendai that an overhaul of working conditions, including amending the long working hours, needs to be taken up immediately.

“Securing top human resources for public administration is a national issue,” Kawamoto said, speaking at a meeting to exchange opinions with local experts. “The situation has reached critical proportions.”

As a top priority, Kawamoto identified the extensive preparatory work done by bureaucrats ahead of and during Diet sessions, which often forces them to work late into the night.

According to an NPA survey of staff at 44 national administrative agencies between November 2022 and January this year, many respondents said that lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition parties were “slow” when it came to informing them in advance of questions to be asked in the Diet.

The number of applicants for the spring 2023 comprehensive civil service exam totaled just 14,372, the second-lowest in history, and the success rate of 1 in 7.1 was the lowest ever. In fiscal 2014, just under one-fourth (23%) of the successful applicants were graduates of the University of Tokyo; that percentage dropped to 10% this fiscal year.

The number of national civil servants who quit less than 10 years after joining a ministry or agency is also trending up — from 76 in fiscal 2013 to 109 in fiscal 2020.

“To stop this trend of people leaving the civil service, first and foremost the situation in which bureaucrats are left exhausted by long working hours preparing for Diet sessions must be changed,” said Keio University Prof. Koji Matsui, a former deputy chief cabinet secretary.

Matsui also recommends that mid-career and young officers be assigned tasks that they find rewarding, such as involving them in the policy-making process, and that organizations be energized by allowing mid-career hiring.

Heavy workload

The heavy workloads bureaucrats often endure when preparing for parliamentary debates was discussed during the Diet session that closed on June 21.

At a House of Councillors Cabinet Committee meeting on May 23, economic revitalization minister Shigeyuki Goto confirmed he has held meetings with bureaucrats at 4 a.m. to discuss Diet replies, in response to a question from Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Hideya Sugio.

Sugio said the practice “goes against” the government’s professed work-style reforms and urged improvement. But one of the reasons such meetings are held before dawn is that when members of both the ruling and opposition parties submit questions in advance ahead of Diet debates, they often do so late.

According to a Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs survey conducted between November and December last year, on average, bureaucrats started drafting last replies for the following day at 7:54 p.m. and finished preparing all answers at 2:56 a.m.

Digital Minister Taro Kono said: “If questions are submitted at 8 p.m., there is no way they can manage the work within work hours. They are doing overtime at that point already.”

Kono, who is also in charge of the national civil service system, said it was essential for the ruling and opposition parties to submit questions earlier.