Japanese Foreign Aid

Evan Kratzer


This paper attempts to explain a phenomenon that at first glance may seem quite trivial. Existing scholarship has depicted Japanese foreign aid policy has gradually converging with the norm developed by Western countries to fund primarily social infrastructure projects, such as schools and hospitals, instead of economic infrastructure projects, such as roads and communication networks. Indeed, in the years leading into 2008, the Japanese government increasingly directed aid towards social infrastructure projects while decreasing their economic infrastructure aid budget. But these scholars’ predictions were proven wrong when Japan suddenly shifted its foreign aid budget in 2008 to focus more heavily on economic infrastructure projects instead of social infrastructure projects. To analyze why this unexpected change occurred, I examine Japanese government reports, policy manifestos from the country’s leading political party, and theories of Japanese politics, uncovering a different power structure dictating Japanese aid policy than that which scholars often describe. Instead of the commonly held notion that bureaucrats firmly controlled Japanese aid policy, I find that changing political objectives among leading Japanese politicians caused this reversal in aid commitments by sector. This research thus allows scholars to incorporate Japan into many existing models of democratic governance of foreign aid from which Japan would have been excluded under previously held notions about Japanese foreign aid governance. This paper also cuts to the core of the central question of Japanese political theory: in the federal government, are politicians or bureaucrats more influential? I argue against the widely accepted view expressed succinctly by Chalmers Johnson (1993) that “Who governs [Japan] is Japan’s elite state bureaucracy.” The research instead provides further evidence for the theory put forward by Ramseyer and Rosenbluth (1993) that Japanese politicians retain coercive influence over the Japanese bureaucracy’s actions, and thereby ultimately have substantial control over federal policy.

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