Amakudari (Japan)

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Amakudari 🇯🇵
Japan map.png
Location: Japan
Definition: Appointing retired senior civil servants to executive positions in private companies
Keywords: Japan Asia Bureaucracy Reciprocity Favour Public service Revolving doors Employment
Author: Hayato Moriyama
Affiliation: Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

By Hayato Moriyama, Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

The Japanese term amakudari (天下り) can be translated as 'revolving door' in English, although the literal translation is ‘descent from heaven’ (Mizoguchi and Quyen 2012: 813). The term describes the practice of employing senior civil servants, who have retired from positions in ministries, to managerial positions in corporations, non-governmental organisations or local governments overseen by these ministries. The senior bureaucrats are figuratively referred to Gods and the places of their new employment are described as the Earth (Mizoguchi and Quyen 2012: 813-814). Amakudari is widespread in Japan. A search on the Newspaper Trend search engine ( reveals that Japanese newspapers have referred to the word more than 6,000 times from 2013 to 2018.

Arranging jobs for civil servants and accepting amakudari officials in the private sector rests on a long-term relationships between the ministries and the industries (Mizoguchi and Quyen 2012:816). Both public agencies and re-employment organisations are motivated to participate in amakudari. One possible reason is the tradition of recommending early retirement in central ministries (Kobayashi 2012: 28-29). In Japanese central ministries, officials progress in their careers through an annual promotion review. The role of vice-minister on the top of the ladder can normally be reached during the age of fifty-five to sixty. Since the organisation structure is pyramidal, officials not offered the highest position, but in line for promotion, will be recommended for early retirement and redeployed in the private sector or special governmental corporations (NPA of Japan 2002). Another motivational factor is the promise of high salaries in the private sector at the end of one's career, which motivates junior civil servants to work harder for low wages (Mizoguchi and Quyen 2012: 815-816). The incentive for pushing out senior employees in private organisations with lifetime employment and promotion of seniority– that promotions become increasingly costly to the organisation (Johnson 1974: 959) – seems less applicable to Japanese civil service since the number of employees and the labour cost budget in this sector are both fixed.

Although the National Civil Service Law has banned securing private posts for civil service officers by the ministries in 2007, the number of amakudari placements between 2006 and 2008 totalled 1,872 according to a press release of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIAC 2009). Amakudari in the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MLIT), with coveted positions in the construction and real estate industries (Quah 2011: 452), increased from 180 to 218 between 2007 and 2008 (MIAC 2009). As evident from Table 1, ministries that hold authorities over private companies (such as the MLIT and Ministries of the Economy, Trade and Industry, and Finance) have significantly more positions than those without such supervising roles (like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Amakudari has analogous practices in other countries. In the US, the revolving door phenomenon has three forms: the industry-to-government, the government-to-industry and the government-to-lobbyist movement (Revolving Door Working Group 2015: 7-8). In industry-to-government, ‘the appointment of corporate executives and business lobbyists to key posts in federal agencies establishes a pro-business bias in policy formulation and regulatory enforcement’ (Revolving Door Working Group 2015:7). In the movement of public officials to the private sector, experiences from the ex-officials help the new employers navigate governmental procurement and regulations (Revolving Door Working Group 2015: 8). Finally, in movement from the civil servants to lobbyists, former government connections are employed to advance the interests of corporate clients (Revolving Door Working Group 2015:8). In amakudari, the government-to-industry is the only direction of employment exchange. The practice of revolving door in the US is more elaborate. The French analogue of amakudari is pantouflage: leaving the civil service for employment in the private sector, usually on secondment that allows a return to the position in the public sector (Alexandre-Bailly and Muratbekova-Touron 2018:239). Upon entrance to certain French universities, students are promised to become civil servants and to retire early in their careers in order to pursue senior position in the private sector (Colignon and Usui 2003: 5).

Table 1: First amakudari posts in selected ministries and government agencies (translated and adapted by author from MIAC 2009)
2006 2007 2008 Total
Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport 199 180 218 597
Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry 77 83 69 229
Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries 62 66 67 195
Ministry of Finance 67 59 66 192
Coast Guard 49 56 54 159
Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications 45 44 28 117
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology 25 24 28 77
National Police Agency 19 22 31 72
Ministry of Foreign Affairs 5 8 7 20
Other ministries and government agencies 78 79 57 214
Total 626 621 625 1872

Amakudari can trigger a number of other informal practices in the public sector. Civil servants lobby for their own future positions in private companies and organisations, and retired officials lobby for the promotions of senior bureaucrats. According to Quah (2011), strong ministry-to-business ties have resulted in bureaucratic corruption in the construction industry in the form of the illegal dangou (secret bid-rigging) system. In watari, an elaborate derivative form of amakudari, retired bureaucrats move between different positions in private firms supervised by their former ministries (Cheung 2010: 140-141).

The implications of amakudari are manifold. The practice 'has been criticised as one of the root causes of collusion in Japan’s ʻiron triangle’, a mutually supportive relationship among politicians (especially in the Liberal Democratic Party), public servants and private companies operating in Japan (Colignon and Usui 2003: 191). When ex-bureaucrats lobby for favours, younger officials oblige their esteemed former colleagues by providing information or steering toward company-friendly legislation because these junior officials will seek an amakudari position in the future (ibid.). This reciprocity makes amakudari an instance of jinmyaku, the informal network of business contacts (Horak 2018: 94-96).

Amakudari can serve as the vehicle for the maintenance and acquisition of public subsidies. In 2015, Daisuke Yoshida, the former director-general of the Higher education bureau in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan (MEXT), the body allocating higher education subsidies, got an appointment as a professor at Waseda University within two months of his retirement. While the public investigation found evidence of the director-general having arranged for his future placement while in his post as the bureau head (SRSC 2017), the bureau claimed no such subsidy favours were possible (MEXT 2017).

Although mostly a form of collusion, amakudari can have positive effects. Employing experienced public officials, well versed in regulation, can improve the effectiveness of administrative guidance of private companies (Johnson 1974: 963-964). Amakudari can help break tensions between the government and private sector. Receiving amakudari officials can also be more cost-efficient for private firms than lobbying for favours (Mizoguchi and Quyen 2012: 815-816).

The Japanese public is not sympathetic toward amakudari. A public opinion survey conducted by the Cabinet Office showed that more than 75 per cent of respondents, who held that civil servants did not meet public needs, believed that this was due to extensive amakudari (CAS 2007). While legislative revisions have been attempting to curb the practice since the 1990s, public officials persist in finding detours.


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