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.
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“The thing that attracts the most focus, though, is the lack of leadership shown by recent prime ministers,” he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Media shapes public opinion
Leadership – or lack thereof – has become a recurring theme in the media as one prime minister after another has found his popularity diving to untenable levels.
In recent years the press has “shifted focus from prime minister’s policy to the issue of leadership,” says Professor Tetsuro Kato of Waseda University in Tokyo. “The media has a huge role in building up and knocking down prime ministers,” he says.
Japanese newspapers in particular, whose journalists work closely together in press clubs, often speak with one voice on major issues. Reporters from different newspapers will compare notes after press conferences and events, deciding on a common angle, in a process known as memo awase.
Once the press has decided a prime minister has been indecisive or wavered on an issue, the criticism will be unified, and relentless. And their viewpoint has broad influence: Japan has some of the highest newspaper readership on the planet – seven of the world’s 10 largest papers by circulation are Japanese – and 90 percent of Japanese polled say they trust what’s written in them.
During Hatoyama’s eight months in office, the press corps became increasingly hostile toward him, as did public opinion, particularly after he appeared to go back on his commitment to move a controversial US Marine base off Okinawa island. Though he entered office on a wave of optimism last September with 70 percent approval, by the end of May his ratings dropped below 20 percent.
Hatoyama’s likely successor, Finance Minister Naoto Kan, has the advantage of not having inherited political power, as well as a positive reputation for battling bureaucratic cover-ups and being a straight talker. He also has an infamously short temper, which could hurt him at the daily press conferences he’ll be expected to attend.
[Editor's note: The original summary misidentified Yukio Hatoyama as Japan's 15th prime minister in 21 years. He is the 14th.]
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