Like a hapless baseball team forced to go to the bullpen for yet another relief pitcher, Japan has called up a new prime minister, its sixth in five years. Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ, is the latest iteration of what has become an annual ritual of Japanese leadership change. Prime Minister Naoto Kan, also of the DPJ, has been unceremoniously tossed aside, although his 15-month term will be remembered as relatively long by recent Japanese standards.
The DPJ has been plagued by an inability to produce, let alone implement, policies, even after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear cataclysms of March 11 had the populace clamoring for decisive leadership. But the politicians were unable to overcome their partisan and factional bickering.
Kan, whose disapproval ratings surpassed his approval ratings after only one month in office, lost the last remnants of public favor after his administration’s disastrous response to the March disasters. His indecisiveness and dodging of responsibility doomed his chances of remaining as leader.
In June, Kan beat back a no-confidence vote by the national legislature for him to resign — by agreeing to resign. That hollow victory, the legislative equivalent of offering to quit before being fired, bought him some time. But during his subsequent tenure as dead man walking, Kan frittered away the opportunity to be the bold leader his nation yearned for.
But Kan shouldn’t be singled out for excessive criticism. He was no worse than the parade of his predecessors. One might assume that the prime minister’s nameplate is now affixed with Velcro to facilitate easy replacement. Indeed, Kan’s wife said she didn’t pack more than summer clothes when her husband was selected as prime minister in June 2010, since she didn’t know how long he would actually remain in office.
The Democratic Party of Japan’s star has faded. The DPJ was elected in a landslide victory two years ago amid euphoric predictions of bold new policies that would break the streak of Japan’s revolving door of short-lived leaders. Instead, the party has proved to be as feckless and riven by factionalism as the regime of the Liberal Democratic Party that it replaced. The DPJ tenure has been a slow-motion train wreck, and “Japanese leadership” continues to be an oxymoron.
In many ways, the DPJ was largely elected because it wasn’t the LDP. The discredited Liberal Democratic Party, however, won a striking victory in last year’s upper-house elections because it wasn’t the DPJ. Unfortunately for voters, Japan is running out of political parties to run against.
Noda faces a daunting agenda. Even before the March 11 triple disaster, Tokyo was struggling with a stagnant economy, staggering public debt, deteriorating demographics, growing security threats from China and North Korea and fading international influence.
Neither the LDP nor the DPJ has displayed the vision or ability to govern Japan effectively. Despite Japan’s national challenges, both parties remain focused on politics rather than policies. They are like two punch-drunk fighters bludgeoning one another to score points but unable to deliver the knockout punch. The result is political stalemate and policy gridlock.
Japan is further hindered by a political system unable to produce national leaders who actually lead. Instead, it resembles an assembly line churning out ineffective politicians. And having prime ministers jump overboard at the first gust of disapproval prevents implementation of necessary but potentially unpopular policies.
Someday, Japan may experience a strategic political realignment that results in parties that offer real choice between opposing political ideologies and policy objectives. In the meantime, Japan’s international influence and relevance are fading due to its inability to make decisions. Tokyo could learn from Will Rogers, who once said, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
Here’s hoping that Noda can break the mold and take charge. Otherwise, the land of the rising sun seems doomed to fade into the sunset.
By Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org)