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Why Hatoyama - and many Japanese prime ministers - stumbled

Yukio Hatoyama is Japan's fourth prime minister in a row to last for less than a year, and the 14th to hold the post in 21 years. Many PMs have risen as part of a political dynasty without having to hone leadership skills.

By Correspondent / June 3, 2010

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama speaks to reporters upon his arrival at his official residence in Tokyo June 3, 2010. Japan's ruling Democratic Party was scrambling on Thursday to pick a new leader, and hence premier, after fiscally conservative Finance Minister Naoto Kan threw his hat in the ring to replace unpopular Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned a day earlier ahead of a looming election.

REUTERS/Issei Kato

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Tokyo

When Japan’s next prime minister takes office following Yukio Hatoyama's resignation announcement on Wednesday, he will be the 15th occupant of the office in the past 21 years.

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Take the unusually long tenure of Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) out of the equation, and 13 prime ministers have lasted a total of 16 years.

Mr. Hatoyama himself was the fourth consecutive leader who failed to last even a year in the job. For all the hopes of meaningful change borne in last year's historic election victory by his opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), to many it now looks like simply more of the same: another scion of a powerful political dynasty who turned out not to have the mettle to handle the pressures of the nation's highest office.

The strength of Japan’s political dynasties is a major driver in the almost annual procession of weak, mostly forgettable figures in and out of the country’s highest office. Because many politicians inherit their positions, they are not forced to cultivate leadership skills or learn to win popular support.

Out of touch?

The Japanese refer to the sons of the rich as obo-chan – and it’s a phrase that’s been thrown at the most recent quartet of short-lived prime ministers, who many felt were out of touch with ordinary people.

“I voted for Hatoyama, and still support the DPJ, but he turned out to be obo-chan, too,” says Hitomi Mizune, a small-business owner in Tokyo.

“The problem is that they don’t gather public support and then become leaders. They inherit their constituencies from their families,” she continues, referring to the common practice of political fiefdoms being handed down generation after generation.

When Hatoyama defeated then-Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last summer, ending more than half a century of nearly uninterrupted rule, much was made of the fact that both men’s grandfathers had been political rivals in the LDP’s formative postwar years.

“The electorate has changed rapidly over the last few decades, and the political parties are still essentially stuck in the old fashioned status quo of the bureaucrats-politicians-business trinity governing,” says Takashi Inoguchi, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo.

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