Watching Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s teary-eyed apology to fellow Democratic Party of Japan members in Tokyo last Wednesday, I was not thinking of the usual commentaries offered in the days before his resignation — squandering of the public mandate, indecisiveness, aloofness, political paralysis.
After all, a change of cabinet in Japan, where 33 prime ministers have served since the end of World War II, is routine. The only noteworthy element might have been that the last four prime ministers — Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, Taro Aso and Yukio Hatoyama, each of whom resigned after barely a year in office, have been sons and grandsons of prime ministers.
Rather, watching Hatoyama, I kept thinking that a politician taking responsibility for his failings and stepping down is truly a sight to behold.
In light of rising public pressure and criticism within his own party ahead of a major election, Hatoyama may have had little choice. Still, that he did so in a timely manner and with dignity is to his credit.
This is not to suggest that leaders in Japan or elsewhere should throw down the gauntlet at the first sign of confrontation or public disapproval. But to know that sometimes one’s best contribution is to leave is surely a virtue. It is also an extremely rare one, as citizens of too many countries with leaders averse to accepting blame or stepping down can testify.
Try to imagine Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe expressing remorse and resigning. Or imagine George W. Bush or senior members of his administration apologizing for leading their country into an ill-conceived and disastrous war in Iraq.
So pervasive is the urge to cling to power at all cost that the world’s largest monetary award, the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership considers a political leader’s ability to step down at the end of his or her term as one of its most important selection criteria.
The Japanese propensity for taking personal responsibility for failure, frequently misunderstood by Westerners as contrived or insincere, is in fact deeply embedded in their psyche. Fosco Maraini, the intrepid Italian anthropologist, wrote in his memoir “Meeting with Japan” that even if the term Bushido — translated as “the Way of the Samurai” — is no longer practiced in daily life, the nucleus of traditional ideas such as honor and self-sacrifice continue to influence Japanese politics, business and family life.
When in February of this year Akio Toyoda, the president of Toyota, testified before the U.S. Congress and took personal responsibility for the failures of his company, it was seen as a matter of course. But can one even imagine an American executive from Wall Street apologizing in the parliament of another country?
Since moving to Japan, I have watched with amazement as public and private-sector officials have voluntarily stepped down to atone for the errors of their subordinates. When I was heading an office here, invariably it was the Japanese staff in my team who were quickest to accept blame for real or imagined failings.
The United States is a culture of guilt and Japan a culture of shame — so argued Ruth Benedict, in her seminal study of Japanese culture “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.” I was never quite taken with this premise, or its implicit assumption that the Western model was somehow superior. But if by culture of shame Benedict also meant taking political responsibility for failure, then surely it is a model worth emulating.
Because it is such an ancient civilization, and still the world’s third largest economy, people tend to forget just how young a democracy Japan is, having adopted this form of self-rule for only 60-odd years — and practically all of that as quasi-one-party rule — of its 2,000-year history. It is only since the mid-1990s, when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party briefly lost power, that democracy in the real sense has taken root in Japan.
The issue of U.S. bases in Okinawa, the most visible (though certainly not the only) cause of Hatoyama’s downfall, is very complicated. It has been festering for decades.
The inexperienced prime minister was unable to communicate, either to Washington or to his fellow citizens, the complexity of the matter. His self-imposed and needless deadline of the end of May for resolving so thorny an issue only confirmed that even deliberate, professorial politicians are prone to political gaffes.
Still, here too there is bright side. The people of Okinawa were able to rally, almost daily, freely expressing their discontent with the government. There was no violence, and no one was arrested or silenced. The usually tepid Japanese media covered it all thoroughly. There was a good amount of national debate.
Ultimately, the highest-ranking politician in the land, mindful of public sentiments, stepped down. A transparent transition has ensured his replacement practically within 48 hours — and it has all been done with due process, peacefully. Surely such an orderly exercise of democracy is itself reason for optimism.
Yes, all in all, a good week for Japanese democracy. Hatoyama did right, by his party and his country. Some times the best, most decent thing a leader can do is simply to go away.
Nassrine Azimi, senior adviser at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (Unitar). These comments reflect her personal views.