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Explaining Postal Reform in Japan

Patricia Maclachlan publishes book on the history and politics of the Japanese postal system

Posted: January 23, 2012

For nearly half a century the state-run postal services (mail, postal savings and postal insurance) stood at the center of Japan’s conservative political-economic establishment. But in 2005 then-Prime Minister Koizumi passed legislation to privatize the system. Patricia Maclachlan, associate professor of government and Asian studies, explains the dynamics of institutional perseverance and sudden change in her new book, “The People’s Post Office: The History and Politics of the Japanese Postal System, 1871-2010.”

With the postmasters occupying a distinctive position at the intersection of Japan’s bureaucratic and electoral worlds, the postal services developed into a symbol of tradition and a bastion of opposition toward neoliberal economic reform. The postal service thus long avoided serious reform or challenges to its status in Japan’s political economy.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, the postmasters provided the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) with members, votes and financial contributions in return for protective government policies. On the bureaucratic side, officials in the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications established close ties with the LDP. The result was an iron triangle that exercised tight control over postal policymaking.

Postal reform in Japan is a story about how institutions provide space for the exercise of innovative leadership, and how innovative leaders both adapt to institutions and shape their trajectories. New policymaking and electoral institutions introduced during the 1990s, well before Koizumi assumed power, combined with Koizumi’s unique leadership skills, strengthened the prime minister’s influence relative to that of the bureaucracy and anti-reformist LDP politicians. More specifically, through skillful use of the newly established Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy and his landslide victory in the 2005 Lower House election, which was fought strictly on policy terms, Koizumi was able to bypass normal interest group alignments and pass legislation that transformed the postal service.

But postal reform continues to face significant resistance from those who benefitted the most from the old state-run system. These “forces of resistance” have managed to partially re-embed state-run institutions into a more market-oriented setting, thus illustrating the postal system’s continuing role as one of Japan’s last sanctuaries for conservative vested interests and traditional values.

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