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    Japan
     Jun 11, 2011


Ten reasons for Japan's revolving door
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - Going by the revolving door of prime ministers who keep resigning after very short tenures, the top job in Japan should be the world's hardest post.

A year since he took office, Naoto Kan has been forced to pledge to step down once the nation has recovered from the worst of a triple whammy: earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

Kan will be the fifth prime minister in five years, should he quit by late September. Why does Japan politics play musical chairs with a new prime minister every year? Is there any systemic problem with Japan politics? Or has the nation just had poor leaders?

 
Many wonder.

Here are 10 reasons for the revolving door.

1. Economic doldrums
Poorer economies weaken already vulnerable governments anytime and anywhere. This was especially true during Japan's post-bubble "lost decades" since early 1990s. The country headed into a downward deflationary spiral, which is far worse than an inflation spiral because there is no way to break the flight from borrowing and spending until it bottoms out and consumers begin to consume again.

With the national economy and budget shrinking, Japanese politicians became more and more inward-looking and began to engage in internal fighting. They always get in each other's way. Japan has had 14 prime ministers in the past 20 years of post-bubble downturn.

2. Very short primary election campaigns with no fierce battles
The Japanese political system is unique in that, unlike the United States, the party that gains a majority of seats in a general election produces the next prime minister under a parliamentary cabinet system. Thus, the majority party's presidential election is quite significant, as the outcome of that race will essentially decide Japan's next leader.

But the election time of the party presidential race tends to be very short. For example, following the former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama's resignation announcement on June 2, 2010, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had just a two-day election campaign for presidency before selecting Kan as the next party leader on June 4. This is in contrast to the US presidential campaign, which spans around one year including primary elections.

Without enough election time, voters cannot sort out any good politician from multi-candidates. Candidates also cannot be tempered by trials and tribulations such as money scandals.

3. The twisted Diet
In recent years, many prime ministers such as Yasuo Fukuda resigned because of a political deadlock called "the twisted Diet (parliament)", where the ruling party has a majority of seats in the House of Representatives (lower chamber) while opposition parties maintain a majority of parliamentary seats in the House of Councilors (upper chamber).

This makes it almost impossible for any prime minister to get key bills through. Unlike the US, Japanese political parties' headquarters order their lawmakers on whether to support or vote against bills. Lawmakers who don't follow their party's decision are punished. Cross-party voting is not permitted.

Japanese politicians act in a group, not as individuals. They form political factions and usually don't vote on the basis of personal convictions.

4. No lawmaking in the Diet
The Japanese constitution says the Diet is the only legislative authority and the cabinet is a policy-implementation organization. But in reality, Japanese lawmakers usually do not make laws. Central government bureaucrats make laws.

The misnomer is heightened by the sense that all lawmakers do is criticize the cabinet, which is evident in current attacks on the Kan administration by opposition parties and some ruling Diet members. This has sunk Japanese politics to new depths.

5. Hereditary politicians
Japanese political cycles are full of hereditary politicians. In one account, nearly 20% of lower house members are hereditary politicians, whose family members used to be national lawmakers. This hereditary ratio is especially high in the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Nearly 40% of LDP members are hereditary politicians.

This well-entrenched hereditary system works negatively, especially at the time of disaster. Preppy Japanese politicians fail to understand the public mindset and have little grasp of the tasks that disaster victims at evacuation centers most expect the government to fulfill.

Public perceptions that their politicians spinelessly relinquish the reins of government when times get tough have provoked anger. Ordinary Japanese cannot abandon their jobs and are forced to tighten their belts.

6. No civic journalism
Japanese media have exacerbated domestic problems by concentrating on what central ministries and agencies announce passively. Rather than going out into the town and pouring into the streets, many reporters heavily plump onto seats and sofas at the in-famous press club, or Kisha club in Japanese.

Central ministries and agencies, as well as local cities, prefectural polices and economic organizations, provide plenty of space for the benefits of those exclusive media clubs, along with facilities such as phone and faxes. This system causes Tokyo-oriented reporting and authority-focused journalism, rather than "man-on-the-street" journalism.

Moreover, control of the national daily newspapers, commercial television and most radio stations is in the hands of several Japanese media conglomerates. With media power so concentrated and strong, politicians who are not liked by reporters find it hard to get the air time needed to raise their popularity among voters.

7. US pressure
Japanese premiers of the post-World War II period with long tenures were those who preserved the golden era of US-Japan relations. Among them were Yasuhiro Nakasone, who was best known for his strong relationship with president Ronald Reagan, popularly called the "Ron-Yasu" friendship, and Junichiro Koizumi, who nurtured a close personal accord with George W Bush.

In sharp contrast, the late prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, who signed the Japan-China joint communique and achieved the normalization of diplomatic relations with China in 1972, was kicked out of office because of the so-called Lockheed bribery scandal. Japanese political analysts believe many allegations of bribery over Lockheed originated from the US administration, because Tanaka put relations with China ahead of the US-Japan alliance.

Most recently, former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, who tried to move the controversial US Futenma Marine air base from Okinawa prefecture and campaigned for an East Asia community involving China, had a tenure of less than nine months.

8. National treacheries by bureaucrats
The WikiLeaks documents have shown high-ranking officials in Japan's foreign and defense ministries were very critical of the ruling DPJ-led administration, which originally called for a more equal partnership with the US.

A WikiLeaks document revealed the views of Akitaka Saiki, director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Foreign Ministry at the time:
Saiki theorized that the DPJ, as an inexperienced ruling party, felt the need to project an image of power and confidence by showing it had Japan's powerful bureaucrats under control and was in charge of a new and bold foreign policy that challenged the US. Saiki called this way of thinking "stupid" and said "they will learn".
Moreover, sentiments of the then-Defense Ministry's defense policy bureau director general Nobushige Takamizawa were reported as suggesting, "The US delegation ought not to take [Akihisa] Nagashima's assessment of current realignment plans at face value" and that Takamizawa had "cautioned against premature demonstration of flexibility in adjusting the realignment package to be more palatable to the DPJ Government."

Nagashima was then vice minister of defense. Takamizawa spoke to a US delegation in a lunch meeting when Nagashima was absent.

Japanese voters last August ended the one-party domination of the LDP by giving a massive victory to the DPJ. Should national bureaucrats not follow the orders of politicians, who were chosen by historical national elections, for whom are bureaucrats working for? In Washington, it is said around 3,000 bureaucrats are moved from office once voters eject a government. In Tokyo, bureaucrats stay on-site, where they neutralize nationally elected politicians.

9. The nail that sticks out gets banged down
Japanese society cherishes groupism and tends to beat those who break from traditional social rules. This social norm works negatively on such politicians as Ichiro Ozawa, who boldly try to address national problems through strong-arm tactics and risk-taking to confront and rein in the bloated bureaucracy. More than a few political analysts, along with the mainstream mass media, say that in the arrest of his aides over political donations, Ozawa is the real target.

10. Japanese people quick to catch a trend
Japanese people are prone to follow the trend of the times and to try to make sure "I'm one of the guys". Thus, once a political and economic climate changes, they tend to follow the new fashion by throwing out the old. The popularity of politicians is also usually short-lived.

Political leaders of true merit are difficult to find at any time and anywhere. This is a universal, not Japanese problem. However, as the hard times roll in Japan anyone seeking the top job needs iron-clad political mettle, extra special spiritual strength and unwavering guts.

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based Japanese journalist. His twitter is @TakahashiKosuke

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Kan on a bumpy road to first anniversary
(May 27, '11)

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