Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva once said that in Japan, you say ‘good morning’ to one prime minister and ‘good afternoon’ to another.
Lula's joke still rings true. A survey by the Nikkei business daily showed 70 percent of those surveyed felt that Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan should be replaced, less than a year after he took office. Such views are, in a sense, hardly surprising. Kan has been at the receiving end of persistent criticism since he became premier last June, including over his administration's response to the ongoing nuclear crisis here following last month’s earthquake. But even before the Tohoku quake, Kan had been under fire over his handling of the Senkaku incident, with many believing he had responded too meekly to Chinese anger following the detention of a fishing vessel captain. Indeed, even Kan’s wife has chimed in with some critical remarks.
So, with the clock apparently ticking for Kan, Japan's prime ministerial revolving door looks set to keep spinning. The country has had five prime ministers in the past four years, with each of Kan’s four predecessors leaving under a cloud. Shinzo Abe, faced with plunging approval ratings, resigned suddenly just as a new parliamentary session was beginning in September 2007. His successor, Yasuo Fukuda, stepped down when confronted with political deadlock, while Taro Aso resigned to take responsibility for the Liberal Democratic Party's humiliating electoral defeat in 2009. Yukio Hatoyama, stepping up as premier for the Democratic Party of Japan, soon stepped down after failing to make good on his campaign promise to close the US Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma in Okinawa, paving the way for Kan to take office.
It doesn’t take a seasoned political observer to see that this trend has to stop. While the ongoing unrest in the Arab world demonstrates the undesirability of leaders outstaying their welcome, as a country's representative in international and diplomatic affairs, the head of state should have at least a little longevity to allow him or her to develop crucial relationships with other heads of state. It hardly helps Japan's ties with other countries if the first thing on other leaders’ agenda is remembering the new Japanese prime minister's name.
But while breaking this unhealthy cycle is important for Japan, doing so will be easier said than done. Japan’s revolving door isn’t just down to day-to-day political machinations or the whims of the Japanese electorate – this country’s cultural values, electoral system, and a media and public too quick to turn against a leader all play a part.
There’s plenty that needs to change.
Hiroki Ogawa is a Yokohama-based writer.