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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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".
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
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.
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
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