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.

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

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.

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.

On Tuesday, the English language version of the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second-largest newspaper, ran an editorial titled "Politics in shambles – Japan's political disease appears to be getting worse by the day."

The same day, Moody’s issued a warning to Japan that it may downgrade its sovereign debt rating to Aa2, citing concerns over creaking public finances and political instability.

"Effective fiscal reform most likely requires stability at the top levels of government," Tom Byrne, Moody's senior vice president, told reporters in Tokyo.

He pointed to the fact that since Junichiro Koizumi, widely seen as the hero leader of the LDP, ended his term in 2006, there have been three Liberal Democratic Party prime ministers and one Democratic Party prime minister who have served for a year or less.

Though, as Takashi Inoguchi, professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo, points out, there is actually nothing new in this. “The success rate [of Japanese prime ministers] is only about 10 percent. It’s always been this way.”

The data appear to bear the professor out: the prime minister has changed nearly 50 times since 1947, though some occupiers of the office have returned more than once.

Some commentators and analysts point to the Japanese media, which tend to turn on leaders en masse, leaving them subject to an undiluted stream of bad press.

“It’s even more difficult these days because we are in the age of so-called monitory democracy – everything is reported and often amplified in a distorted way,” says Professor Inoguchi.

“This didn’t start recently – it’s long been like this in Japan,” suggests Inoguchi. “Things work reasonably well without the prime minister.”

Kan’s days already look numbered

“He has a lot of tenacity to hang on to his position, but the way for him to go is being paved,” suggests Inoguchi.

With rumblings of discontent growing within his own party, Kan has floated the idea of taking his case to the people by calling a snap election. This has, as it was undoubtedly intended to do, unnerved some DPJ lawmakers who know their seats will be extremely vulnerable with the government as unpopular as it is.

“He has two choices, to resign or call a general election. If I were him, I would call an election. I think he will take that [latter] option,” says Inoguchi.

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