Remembering Masahiro Horie

A decade ago I was reading an article in The New York Times about the Japanese Government’s attempts to avert a meltdown of the reactors in the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. One of the experts quoted was Masahiro Horie, then dean of international affairs at Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS). The name sounded familiar.

An Interview in Kasumigaseki

Twenty-five years before that I wrote an article entitled “Management of the Public Sector in Japan: Are There Lessons to be Learned?” that was published in Canadian Public Administration and is now unfortunately lodged behind the publisher’s paywall. Japanese management was then the flavour of the decade in business schools, and I was interested in finding out if there were aspects of its public management that we could emulate. This quest  took me to Kasumigaseki, the Tokyo district where most ministries are located. The Canadian Embassy arranged several interviews and, when necessary, provided translation.

One of the positions I wanted to interview was a budget examiner in the Finance Ministry, the face of the Japanese Government’s strict financial management. My interviewee was Masahiro Horie, then budget examiner in the science and technology area. Horie was a graduate of the University of Tokyo who passed the demanding examination to enter the elite stream of the Japanese public service. Beyond his lucid explanation of financial management techniques, Horie had a fluency in English and familiarity with North America that came from studying for an MPA at the top-rated Maxwell School of Public Administration at Syracuse University in the early Seventies. I felt more comfortable with Horie than my other interviewees and we went out for a convivial lunch a few days later.

A Dinner in Roppongi

A few years after Horie and I reconnected through the auspices of The New York Times, my twelve year old son and I were planning a summer trip to Japan. I consulted Prof. Horie (or Horie-sensei) about our itinerary. He invited me to give a talk on public sector innovation to the students in the mid-career master’s program for overseas public servants and then he would take us out for dinner.

After our first contact, he went on radio silence for a while. It turns out he had been hospitalized for a stroke. Miraculously, according to his doctors, he made a complete recovery and emailed me that “I can continue to work. I am such a lucky person.”

I did make my presentation to the class, the day after we arrived. Prof. Horie took us out to a great restaurant in the Roppongi entertainment district, close to GRIPS. I recall we spoke about our careers, his uncertain health, and his hometown of Kano, a small coastal town an eight-hour drive from Tokyo. My son – a jet-lagged preteen – recalls that Prof. Horie was friendly and approachable and took all his many questions seriously.

Sad News about Professor Horie

A week ago I received an email from Prof. Horie’s secretary Fumiko Koyama addressed to his many overseas colleagues and friends informing us that he had passed away from pancreatic cancer. It was detected in its late stages, and Ms. Koyama told us that “he fought back well and always stayed energetic and he kept his spirits high.”

I went to Horie-sensei’s page on the GRIPS website to learn more of his story. He was recruited by what was then called the Management and Coordination Agency (now Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, or MIC), which would be comparable to Canada’s Privy Council Office, Britain’s Cabinet Office, or the US Executive Office of the President. He had a diverse career, including taking an advanced degree overseas and working in the Ministry of Finance. His final position was as Vice-Minister for Policy Coordination in MIC, one of the most senior. A persistent theme of his career had been administrative reform, in particular improving the analysis supporting budgetary decisions and facilitating public feedback. In 2001, Bloomberg BusinessWeek selected him as one of “Asia’s Stars,” referring to him as an ombudsman. Ms. Koyama sent me the article.

Japan’s senior public servants retire relatively early, moving on to other sectors. In Horie-sensei’s case it was to GRIPS where he served as Professor until his death, focusing on the school’s international relationships. His second career was very much a continuation of his first.

Horie-sensei made a major contribution to the practice of public management in Japan and to building bridges between Japan and the rest of the world. He did it with intelligence, good humour, and sensitivity. His smile in the picture on the GRIPS website, which I’ve posted on my home page, reflects his character.

I appreciate having gotten to know Horie-sensei and I admire his character and accomplishments. I hope this post finds its way to others in the global and Japanese public administration communities who knew him, and who I hope will share their remembrances of him.

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