Can Japanese politics be saved?

Author: Gerald Curtis, Columbia University

Political leadership presupposes that there are leaders, that they know where they want to lead, and that they are able to communicate their ideas to voters and obtain their support.

Political leadership in Japan falls short on all these measures.

Japan’s prime ministers have changed with such rapidity since Junichiro Koizumi left office in 2005 that many Japanese voters would be hard pressed to recall all their names. Abe, Fukuda, Aso and Hatoyama were each out within a year and Naoto Kan did little better, holding on for 15 months. It is anyone’s guess at this point how long Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who took over last September, will last.

Even more dramatic than the annual turnover of prime ministers has been the brief tenure of other cabinet ministers since the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came to power in the fall of 2009. Ministers in the Hatoyama and Kan governments served an average of 8.7 months (under Koizumi it was 18.6 months). The minister responsible for dealing with the low birth-rate has changed eight times in the past two-and-a-half years. There have been seven DPJ ministers of state for consumer affairs and food safety and seven ministers of justice.

The DPJ came into power pledging to create a politician-led government. Had the DPJ’s first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, been more competent and had he remained in office for a few years rather than for 11 months the party’s plan to rein in the bureaucracy and create a powerful cabinet-led government might have borne fruit. Once Hatoyama fell and the DPJ became torn by internal rivalries, public support took a nosedive.

As a consequence, the mandarins of Kasumigaseki (where Japan’s bureaucratic elite works) who had been thrown on the defensive when the DPJ took power, surmised that they had time on their side. They dragged their feet on implementing policies of which they disapproved, knowing that sooner rather than later the cabinet would change. The DPJ’s proclaimed intention to have DPJ ministers, deputy ministers and parliamentary secretaries make policy, relegating bureaucrats to the role of mere clerks, proved to be so naïve, so out of tune with the nation’s traditions, and so incompatible with the imperatives of policy making in modern democracies that it was impossible to execute.

Prime Minister Noda has resorted to none of Hatoyama’s and Kan’s vitriolic invective against the bureaucracy. He has shown none of their enthusiasm for reforms that were supposed to put politicians in charge. The result is that the bureaucracy is at least as strong as it ever was under the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP).

The rub of course is that the bureaucracy cannot lead. There is no bureaucratic mechanism for coordinating policy across ministerial lines, for setting priorities or for designing strategies to obtain public support and Diet approval for the government’s program. This is the responsibility of the political leadership — leadership that has for the most part been missing in action.

Noda’s determination to pass legislation to raise the consumption tax, and his ability to forge an agreement with the Liberal Democratic and New Komeito parties to do so, have raised expectations that Japan finally again has a leader worthy of the name. His refusal to back away from his commitment to raise the tax has earned him kudos with foreigners who admire his determination to begin the process of getting Japan’s fiscal deficit under control. But it has not increased support for his government among the Japanese public.

In his writings on the US presidency, Richard Neustadt defined the power of the president as ‘the power to persuade’, including of course the power to persuade the public. During the long years of LDP one-party dominance and factional politics, that kind of leadership skill was not especially valued. But the situation is very different now. Koizumi understood the importance of having a strategy for mobilising public support for unpopular policies. He became popular without being a populist. Noda has yet to show that he has the skill to do the same.

Japan’s political leadership deficit is not the result of a divided Diet or factional infighting, though they no doubt make governance more difficult. Institutional reforms — abolishing the upper house, for example, or directly electing the prime minister, two ideas that are enjoying some currency in Japan today — would not end Japan’s political deadlock or produce stronger leaders. The roots of Japan’s political paralysis lie much deeper: in the inability of leaders to define national goals, in the failure of both the DPJ and the LDP to recruit enough qualified politicians, and in the absence of a realistic strategy for administrative reform.

For more than a century Japan defined its national goals in terms of catching up with the West. Since the late 1980s, having reached that goal, it has been flailing about trying to decide what to do for an encore.

An effective system of leadership recruitment evolved during the long years of LDP one-party rule. Candidates for the Diet came from the highest reaches of the Japanese bureaucracy or from long years of experience in local government. They joined party factions where they learned from senior members how to move legislation through the Diet, engage with the opposition parties and develop relations with the bureaucratic elite.

This recruitment and training system has all but collapsed. The main qualification for office of many Diet candidates is not their prior political or governmental experience but the happenstance of their being the offspring of Diet members. Rather than reform the bureaucracy, the DPJ has essentially thrown in the towel on bureaucratic reform.

How can Japan emerge from this political cul-de-sac? Perhaps time itself will do the trick. Optimists might argue that Japan is experiencing a long phase of political creative destruction. History may well show that the significance of the DPJ coming to power was not that it consolidated a competitive two-party system but that it provided the trigger for a general political realignment. However, even if that were to occur the process is almost certain to be slow and confused. At best, Japan is still several years away from having a stable reinvented political party system.

Another, way to shake the political elite out of its torpor — surely the most undesirable and dangerous way — is for Japan to face some sort of international crisis: a military clash with China over disputed territory, for instance, a provocative North Korean action against Japan, or another international financial crisis that would affect the government bond market. Those who pine for dramatic political change should be careful what they wish for.

Japan has strong social bonds and a weak political system. Problems abound but living standards for the great majority are high. Unemployment is low by international standards, and national security is provided by a strong alliance relationship with the United States.

In the absence of a foreign policy crisis, and in response to a public that is unhappy with its political class but risk averse and reluctant to support bold policy change, Japanese politics is likely to continue to drift for some time to come. In the long run, a more stable and effective governance system may well emerge out of the current political malaise. But the important question is — what happens in the meantime? Those who speculate about long-run solutions, and do not focus on what needs to be done now, should take to heart John Maynard Keynes’s wise admonition: ‘In the long run we are all dead’.

Gerald Curtis is the Burgess Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and Senior Fellow at the Tokyo Foundation.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly‘Japan: Leading from Behind’.