A New Japan

Naoto Kan on the Ropes

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A New Japan

Naoto Kan on the Ropes

It’s politics as usual in Japan, as the LDP pushes for the ouster of Naoto Kan. It’s hardly in Japan’s interests.

I wholeheartedly agree with co-blogger Hiroki Ogawa—Japan’s constant replacement of its prime ministers hardly seems healthy for the nation. Just think, since this time in 2006—five years ago—there have been six prime ministers in Japan, more than one a year. In fact, the problem goes back much further. I first came to Japan in late January 1989, when the prime minister was Noboru Takeshita. He is one of 16 leaders Japan has had since then (Australia, Britain, and Canada have, in contrast, all had five over the same period).

While Ogawa notes the problems this creates for Japan’s foreign relations, the constant changes also make it difficult to develop and pursue consistent domestic policies. As soon as a Cabinet minister has begun to master their brief, a reshuffle takes place and a new minister must begin again. That inevitably leaves too much power with career bureaucrats and tends to preserve the status quo.

And could there now be yet another leader passing through the revolving leadership door, with calls for the dismissal of Naoto Kan—right when Japan least needs a political upheaval? Egged on by the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), dissent is growing within Kan’s own Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) over poor results in local polls. The Asahi Shimbun reports that the LDP is contemplating a no-confidence motion, in a bid to force the Cabinet to resign. And now DPJ powerbroker and Kan opponent Ichiro Ozawa appears to be circling.

The DPJ appears to have bungled the recent local elections because of its understandable focus on the triple disasters that befell Japan in March. But it’s apparently the government’s handling of the disaster—most notably the ongoing nuclear power plant crisis—that’s triggering public ire. Yet all this seems a little unfair. Although Kan has hardly been a beacon of charisma, the government’s handling of the earthquake and tsunami was incomparably superior to the response of the LDP-controlled government to the last major crisis, the 1995 Kobe earthquake, most notably with the rapid and effective deployment of the Self-Defense Forces and the response to offers of international assistance. As for the accident at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, I suspect much remains to be revealed about those early days (although Bloomberg has made a very good start with this report), but it does seem that Kan was at least pushing a recalcitrant TEPCO in the right direction, and it’s hard to imagine any politician under Japan’s current system coming out of that crisis smelling of roses.

So why is everyone piling on Kan? For the LDP, which has always seemed quite indignant at being finally turfed out of power in 2009, the answer is obvious. For the general public, I can see three reasons.

First, of course, is anger at what has happened, especially at the nuclear power plant, which represents both an invisible menace plus ongoing inconvenience in the form of blackouts. Of course, the problems behind Fukushima were embedded into Japan’s system of corporate governance long before Kan became prime minister, but he’s the man now in charge.

Second, I suspect a general feeling of letdown at the DPJ’s performance in government. Again, I think the real blame here lies not with Kan, but with his immediate predecessor, the hapless Yukio Hatoyama, who squandered public goodwill by trying to prove his anti-US credentials and then becoming embroiled in scandal. By the time Kan took over, the public mood was less forgiving of the fledgling government, and Kan moreover needed to deal with the enmity of Ozawa, who felt that he ought to be prime minister, his own money scandals notwithstanding. Kan then chose this unfortunate time to touch what was then a third-rail of Japanese politics, namely a consumption tax hike. The result was a loss in the Upper House elections and political gridlock, which left him looking ineffectual.

Third, there are systemic political issues in Japan, where policymaking power still largely resides with the career bureaucrats. When things were going well, that meant politicians could focus on politics and take credit for the good times. With things going badly, as they have been for most of the past 20 years, the politicians face public expectations for policy responses they have trouble implementing.

Kan at least has his policy heart in the right place. He understands the benefits to Japan of opening up its economy and joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His government looked willing to take on the difficult task of agricultural sector reform that will enable this, and was looking to take the first steps in this regard, boosting farm subsidies as an eventual replacement for tariffs and beginning a consolidation of farm holdings.

And it’s not as if there’s a popular opposition leader waiting to step up—polls show public support for the LDP is barely higher than it is for the DPJ. So an election now would likely be inconclusive.

Let’s hope Kan can stay the course, because it really is hard to see how Japan would benefit from a change of government at this point.


James Pach is the publisher of The Diplomat and the founder of Trans-Asia Inc., a Tokyo-based translation and investor relations company.

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