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  • Understanding Governance in Contemporary Japan: Transformation and the Regulatory State by Masahiro Mogaki
  • Steven K. Vogel (bio)
Understanding Governance in Contemporary Japan: Transformation and the Regulatory State. By Masahiro Mogaki. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2019. xiii, 184 pages. £80.00, cloth.

Masahiro Mogaki wants to bring the state back in to the study of Japanese politics. His book refreshingly runs counter to the dominant trends in the subfield that favor the study of electoral politics and civil society. Mogaki turns the debate back to governing elites, state structures, and the rich minutiae of the policymaking process.

In 1985, Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol published a volume entitled Bringing the State Back In to coax their fellow social scientists back from the behavioral revolution toward a sustained reexamination of the state. They argued that scholars should study states as both "actors" and "structures." By this they meant that state officials and agencies are autonomous actors in the political system in their own right, with preferences that cannot be reduced to those of the citizens and interest groups in the society around them. And state institutions define arenas that powerfully shape the ways in which societal interests are aggregated and policies are formulated and implemented, and thereby influence the quality and the substance of policy outputs.

Mogaki derives his primary inspiration not from Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol but rather from scholarship on the "core executive" in Britain, where he completed his doctoral studies. The core executive refers to the major organs of the central government, including the prime minister, the cabinet, government departments, and the civil service. The British core executive extends beyond what we would call the executive branch in the United States because most cabinet ministers in parliamentary systems are also members of the legislature, hence the executive and legislative branches are partially fused. But Mogaki expands the definition of the core executive further to include Diet members not serving in the cabinet, because they play such a central role in governance in Japan (pp. 15, 23–24).

Mogaki's primary thesis is that the core executive exercises "asymmetric dominance" in the Japanese political system. It did so in the heyday of the postwar era, and it continues to do so today. But if the core executive includes all of the main actors in the political system, then what does this really mean? At points the thesis almost seems to border on tautology, simply affirming that those who are in charge in Japan are in charge. Yet Mogaki has something different in mind. He contends that state actors are structurally advantaged relative to societal actors. They have the ability to control [End Page 150] other actors' access to the policy process and to manage policy implementation. They have unique resources such as legitimacy, administrative capacity, and enforcement powers (pp. 13–14, 132, 145). They are the ones in the room at the moments of decision and enactment.

Mogaki makes an important point in the Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol sense. The state does not simply execute the will of society; it plays a leading role in the political arena both as actor and as structure. Yet Mogaki asserts the dominance of the core executive almost by fiat. That is, government officials certainly make the key decisions and implement those decisions in the literal sense. But are they doing so as obedient servants of societal interests, or are they acting on their own interests and beliefs? To get at this, Mogaki would have to identify state interests and societal interests, examine policy processes, and evaluate policy outcomes to discern whose preferences actually prevailed. Mogaki focuses so much on the core executive that he does not really grapple with societal interests and their political influence, so he cannot possibly show that the core executive dominates over society.

To be fair, Mogaki's primary goal is not to explain policy outcomes so much as to describe the transformation of the Japanese state, and here he provides a valuable service to the field. The book's greatest strength is not the thesis about the dominance of the core executive but rather the nuanced portrait of bargaining and power shifts within that...