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Why Japan has a problem with prime ministers

The straight-talking Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan inspired 'Yes we Kan' T-shirts when he took office last June, but he's now in trouble. The past four prime ministers have lasted less than a year.

By Correspondent / February 25, 2011

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan attends a budget committee meeting in the lower house of parliament in Tokyo on Feb. 21.

Yuriko Nakao/Reuters

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Tokyo

It all looked so different in June last year when Naoto Kan took over as Japan’s prime minister following the resignation of Yukio Hatoyama, the fourth Japanese leader in a row to have lasted less than a year in office.

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Mr. Kan was not the scion of a political dynasty, but the straight-talking "salaryman prime minister" from a regular family.

Support for the cabinet shot from 20 percent to 60 percent when he took over, and "Yes we Kan" T-shirts popped up in shop windows. It seemed the promise of a new era of politics ostensibly ushered in when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) broke the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) half-century grip on power might finally be delivered.

Eight months later, it looks like business as usual. Kan’s cabinet is now as unpopular as Mr. Hatoyama’s was, and one recent poll showed approval ratings have dropped to 17.8 percent. The inevitable question? Why can't Japan's leaders make it?

Some suggest it’s a lack of coherent political ideology and overemphasis on factional backroom dealing that undermine party unity. And others suggest that with the bureaucrats still effectively running the show – the very system the DPJ campaigned on dismantling – it doesn’t really matter who the politicians are.

The situation: under pressure

The Diet, or parliament, is deadlocked – the passing of the $1 trillion annual budget uncertain. International ratings agencies are suggesting that a lack of leadership is hampering efforts to get Japan’s huge national debt under control, a deputy minister recently resigned, and 16 DPJ lawmakers may be breaking away from the party.

With the opposition LDP in control of the upper house following big gains in elections last year, the government needs a two-thirds majority in the lower house to force bills, including the budget, through. The DPJ’s minor coalition partners have already abandoned it and the opposition is stonewalling attempts at bipartisan cooperation to get a budget passed.

To add to government woes, 16 DPJ lawmakers from the lower house who are loyal to backroom political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa are forming a group in apparent protest at his suspension due to his indictment over a political funding scandal. If they refuse to vote with the government on key issues such as the budget, complete gridlock is a possibility.

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