June 2nd, 2011
01:24 PM GMT
I have a harsh symbol of Japan’s political cynicism on my desk. It’s a coffee cup, with the caricatures of the prime ministers on it. What makes it so cynical is that there’s a space to add four more faces.
When I bought it from the vendor, she explained that the space is there so the company can easily paint on the next prime minister’s face. “Because as we know,” she grimaced, “they never stick around that long.”
Her words bluntly state Japan’s problem with the revolving door at its top political job.
Naoto Kan became prime minister in June last year. If he stays on the job for another week, he’ll be the longest-serving leader of Japan in recent years.
It’s hardly an accomplishment, though, considering that his four predecessors were all on the job a year or less.
Japan’s premiership can be called precarious at best. At its worst, it’s a transitory state to a political abyss for the person who occupies the seat. What its revolving status means for the policies of the world’s third largest economy and the citizenry of Japan is often irrelevance or quiet harm.
Japan’s parliament relies on coalitions of parties. The difference in Japan has been the sensitivity of the lawmakers to public opinion polls and a news media often loudly critical of the prime minister. One misstep can send a prime minister’s approval ratings into the gutter and begin a steady drumbeat in the press to remove the leader.
In a culture where public criticism can be a potent weapon, the last four prime ministers – Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, Taro Aso and Yukio Hatoyama – chose to step out of the way and take the criticism as they exited office.
In Kan’s case, he faces another challenge: the political opposition of the once long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Kan’s party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) booted the LDP from power two years ago in an extraordinary political shift.
Young voters, in particular, were energized by the seismic shift in parliament. But a series of missteps by Kan’s predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, squandered the public’s approval and he was in office only eight months.
Kan entered the premiership as the anointed one, the possible revival of the DPJ. But only weeks after moving into the prime minister’s residence, he pushed a proposal to double the national sales tax from 5% to 10%. Polls plummeted and Kan has been struggling to recover since.
The tsunami and nuclear disaster was an opportunity for Kan to pull his approval ratings from the cellar and emerge as a strong national leader amid a crisis. His nation needed a strong prime minister and personality.
But pundits widely believe Kan hesitated and remained tentative, burned from the months of public criticism, instead of bursting in front of the voters and leading.
That hesitancy gave room for more criticism and the ability for his political enemies to move forward with a no confidence measure on the floor of the parliament. The lawmakers filed past the voting box, dropping in their yea or nay chips. In the end, the vote was almost two to one against the measure, giving Kan another lifeline.
High political drama on television for sure, but to the battered tsunami region in northeastern Japan, the images played out like a circus amid the misery of tens of thousands of victims.
“There are no members of parliament who care about people,” huffed an elderly evacuee from Fukushima Prefecture, currently living in an evacuation center. “They use fancy words, but it’s only for their own political advancement.”
Another woman, from the hard hit region of Iwate Prefecture, said, “This is not the time to do this. This should be the time people unite for Japan’s recovery.”
Uniting behind a leader has been a challenge as of late in Japan. Even today’s political survival of Prime Minister Kan can hardly be characterized as a victory of political approval. Kan may have saved his job temporarily by pledging to his party before the vote that he will eventually step down, after attaining tangible results with the disasters.
Japan avoids a political shuffle today, but not for long.
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