The most dramatic political developments of the year so far in Japan are related. They not only say something about the continuing troubles bedevilling Japan’s political system, but also raise serious questions about the ability of the country’s leadership to solve the problems facing the nation.
First, there has been the political response to the March 11 triple disaster of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis. The Japanese public has been dissatisfied with the government response to the disasters, something underscored by a Pew survey taken in April that found only 20 percent of Japanese believed Prime Minister Naoto Kan or the government had responded well to the crisis. Cabinet support levels, meanwhile, hovered in the 20 percent range from February through May.
Why the dissatisfaction? Problems have included slow delivery of supplies to affected areas, inadequate temporary housing for evacuees, and the predicted inadequate supply of electric power for Tokyo in the hot summer months. From the start, the Japanese public was sceptical of the government’s ability to provide timely and accurate information about the extent of the nuclear disaster. And, although it seems clear that the government was constrained in its ability to get information from TEPCO -- the giant utility running the Fukushima plant -- the public still expected its government to have answers at a time when uncertainty about public safety was at its peak. Despite these problems, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano became a popular figure through his frequent televised briefings in work overalls, during which he spoke to the public in measured and reassuring tones.
Early last month, the government put forth a supplemental budget of about 4 trillion yen to spur relief and recovery in the region. Around 100,000 Self-Defence Force (SDF) personnel were mobilized for relief, supplemented by a huge number of civil society volunteers, as well as the US military. Still, opposition parties have been relentlessly critical of the government’s emergency response and relief efforts.
Kan’s popularity has fallen in part due to his perceived poor handling of the crises, which left him vulnerable to the political manoeuvring surrounding the second major political event -- the June 2 no-confidence motion.
The leading opposition parties, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Your Party (YP) and Komeito (CGP) sponsored the motion. Perhaps surprisingly, the motion also drew support from many legislators within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, most prominently power broker and long-time Kan rival Ichiro Ozawa and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
Kan’s attack’s on Ozawa in the second half of 2010 had brought his cabinet popularity, but led to bad blood between Ozawa and Kan, even as Ozawa remained a powerful figure within the party. Kan and Hatoyama apparently struck a deal in last minute negotiations under which Kan would step down after setting the course for recovery in exchange for Hatoyama’s support against the no-confidence motion.
Party leaders had threatened any dissident lawmakers with expulsion from the party (raising the spectre of party split), so once Hatoyama’s about face made clear the motion wouldn’t pass, momentum within the party quickly unravelled and the final vote was one-sided (293-152).
There’s no doubt that Kan personally, and the DPJ as a whole, have been damaged by the flap. Although initial public reaction to the deal was favourable (the Kan cabinet approval rate climbed to 33 percent, although a majority also approved of Kan’s decision to quit), this has still been an unusual chain of events given that no election is in the offing until 2013.
As a result of all this, questions remain over how Kan will perform as a lame duck, when he or others will decide that the vague criteria of ‘the work being done’ are satisfied, and who will succeed him. Kan has only been prime minister for a year, although that makes him long serving by recent standards. Media reports put the front-runner to succeed Kan ahead of the next House of Representatives poll as Seiji Maehara (who has a history of quitting posts when confronted with scandals).
And, of course, while speculation over all these political manoeuvrings rumbles on, serious policy problems remain, including the clean-up of Fukushima, Japan’s energy policy, the recovery of Tohoku, and raising the consumption tax to balance Japan’s parlous finances.
Robert Pekkanen is an Associate Professor at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.