After Many Leaders, Japan Still Hopes for Recovery
Published: June 14, 2010
TOKYO — Just a week into office, Japan’s new prime minister, Naoto Kan, has already broken with politics as usual here by making unusually frank warnings about the nation’s growing social inequalities, unsustainable national debt and need for painful tax increases.
The question now is whether Mr. Kan, a plain-spoken former civic activist, can further defy precedent by lasting more than a year in office.
He seems off to a good start. Japan’s recession-weary voters have already embraced his tough talk, giving his governing Democratic Party a larger-than-expected bounce in the polls.
Political experts say a straight-talking prime minister is exactly what Japan wants, after years of ineffective leaders who seemed hopelessly out of touch with voters’ concerns and unable to restore a sense of direction to this rudderless nation.
What they want, many here say, is the next Junichiro Koizumi, who energized the public between 2001 and 2006 with his calls for Reagan-style economic deregulation and small government. His quirky charisma and willingness to defy entrenched interests made him the most popular prime minister in modern times, say experts, and changed Japan’s expectations for its leaders.
“Japan is starved for strong leadership,” said Satoshi Machidori, a politics professor at Kyoto University. “Voters understand they need someone to lead Japan out of its long stagnation.”
Yet despite Japan’s severe problems, its political system has given its people a string of short-lived, weak leaders. In the last four years, it has gone through four prime ministers in rapid succession, with Mr. Kan now the nation’s fifth new leader since 2006.
His immediate predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, lasted just eight months. He was driven out by plunging approval ratings after breaking campaign promises and seeming to fritter away the Democrats’ historic election mandate.
Stretch the time frame back to 1990, the approximate beginning of Japan’s stubborn economic funk, and the ailing Asian economic giant has had 13 prime ministers come and go before Mr. Kan. Even Japanese political scientists feel hard pressed to name them all.
“We are competing with Italy to create forgettable leaders,” said Mayumi Itoh, the author of the book “The Hatoyama Dynasty: Japanese Political Leadership Through the Generations,” referring to the string of colorless leaders who preceded the current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
Mr. Kan’s ability to fare better than his predecessors will largely depend on how well he grasps the reasons that drove them from office, Ms. Itoh and other experts say. And while experts cite a host of factors, from outmoded political parties to the emergence of an ingrown leadership class, most agree that the underlying problem seems to be a growing gap in expectations between the public and its political leaders.
What voters want, say political experts, is a leader who both understands their concerns and offers the vision and courage to point a way out. Too often, they have suffered instead with prime ministers who worry only about internal party politics, consensus-building and mollifying the nation’s many interest groups, experts say.
Most of Japan’s recent prime ministers have been second-, third- and even fourth-generation politicians who proved too far removed from average voters and were quick to quit when their approval ratings fell.
“Japan has gone through 20 years of economic stagnation, and there is a lot of pain out there, so voters are much more impatient for dramatic reform than politicians realize,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor of Japanese politics at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo.
Voters have responded to their tone-deaf leaders by rejecting each, often in striking style. Approval ratings for Mr. Hatoyama, who took office in September after the Democrats ended a half-century of virtual one-party rule, plummeted to the high teens from more than 70 percent, dragged down by his seemingly terminal indecisiveness.
Political experts say that Japanese voters might be more forgiving if Japan were somehow incapable of producing strong leaders, either for cultural reasons or because of the limited executive powers of the prime minister’s office, as some have argued. But in fact, the nation has produced numerous visionaries, going back to the samurai who put Meiji-period Japan on its march to industrialization in the late 19th century.
The most recent such leader was Mr. Koizumi. When members of his own party tried to block his plan to privatize the nation’s enormous postal savings system, he took his cause directly to the voters by calling a snap election, an act of political brinkmanship that few other Japanese prime ministers would dare. Mr. Koizumi and his supporters won that 2005 election by a landslide.
While Mr. Koizumi’s market-oriented agenda has fallen out of popularity, he has left a more enduring legacy: changing what voters expect of their leaders.
Japan can no longer go back to the colorless insiders who ruled by brokering backroom deals between party factions, experts say. After Mr. Koizumi, political leaders must be more television-friendly personalities capable of reaching out directly to the public, and particularly to undecided swing voters.
Mr. Koizumi also whetted Japan’s appetite for more decisive leaders unafraid to make tough choices. Experts say his successors failed because they lapsed into Japan’s consensus-driven politics, appeasing interest groups while seeming to ignore the nation’s enormous problems.
“After Koizumi, voters don’t want consensus-makers anymore,” said Jun Iio, a professor of government at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “Koizumi set a high bar for leadership that his successors have failed miserably to meet.”
The question now, Mr. Iio and others say, is whether Mr. Kan fully grasps this shift to a more populist style of politics.
Mr. Kan will face his first political test in the July 11 parliamentary elections. In the longer run, experts say, he will succeed only if he can show voters that he is working in their interests, something Mr. Hatoyama failed to do.
“Mr. Hatoyama is a classic example of a prime minister who needed to set a course for Japan, but couldn’t,” said Kyoto University’s Mr. Machidori. “Mr. Kan must show he has learned the Koizumi lesson.”