The Worst Job in Japan

Less than three months into his term, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is already fighting to hold onto his office. But what's crazier is that anyone wants to take it from him.


In the year since voters in Japan overturned half a century of nearly unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the country’s politics have only grown more unpredictable. In June, then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama — whose Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had been swept into power in the revolt against the LDP last August — resigned, his popularity torpedoed by indecisiveness and allegations of corruption. Less than three months later, it is possible that Japan could change prime ministers again: Naoto Kan, who replaced Hatoyama in June only to lead the DPJ to a disappointing defeat in July’s upper-house election, now faces a challenge from within his own party in Sept. 14’s party leadership election.

More bizarrely, the challenger is Ichiro Ozawa, a longtime behind-the-scenes power broker and former party leader, who was run out of power shortly after the DPJ’s ascent last year over a political financing scandal for which he is still under investigation and could face indictment. With Hatoyama’s encouragement, Ozawa (above right, with Kan in 2006) has entered the race despite his legal problems — and steep opposition to his candidacy within the DPJ and in the public at large. A snap poll conducted by Kyodo News, a wire service, found that roughly 70 percent of the public want Kan to remain as DPJ leader, compared with only 15.6 percent who support Ozawa. The gap is even wider among self-described DPJ supporters: 82 percent for Kan versus 13 percent for Ozawa.

Although an Ozawa upset looks unlikely, its ramifications would be cataclysmic enough that his challenge is being taken seriously. Not only is the fallen leader widely disliked among the public at large, but he is also deeply distrusted among senior members of his own party. The government’s and party’s leadership are both stocked with Ozawa’s critics, whom Kan took on board in an effort to limit Ozawa’s influence. Were Ozawa to somehow win back the party leadership, it is probable that it would break the DPJ, forcing anti-Ozawa politicians out of the party and into cooperation with reformist politicians in other opposition parties — a realignment long desired by some Japanese politicians, but a shake-up that Japan can ill afford at a time of economic uncertainty.

Which is maybe the most mystifying aspect of Ozawa’s quixotic challenge: Why would he even want the job? Kan, even if he wins, is trapped. The DPJ leadership has been effectively reduced to a minority government since its losses in July, lacking a two-thirds majority in the lower house that would enable it to overcome upper-house inaction or rejection of all but budget bills without the cooperation of opposition parties.

And the Democrats’ infighting is occurring against the backdrop of growing fears that Japan is on the brink of a double-dip recession. The yen recently reached a 15-year high against the dollar and, more significant for the competitiveness of Japanese manufacturers, highs against the euro not seen since 2001. The Kan government is considering intervening in foreign exchange markets, even as it pressures the Bank of Japan to do something about ongoing deflation. And Kan is trying to somehow hammer out a new stimulus plan, to be considered by legislators in the fall, while also trying to get budget deficits under control.

Kan, in short, is hemmed in on all sides, unable to do much more than attempt to put out his administration’s fast-multiplying fires. The critical reforms to Japan’s creaky political process that his party promised in the 2009 election have been essentially abandoned. For the foreseeable future, change will be halting — and the Japanese people will inevitably be disappointed by their leaders yet again.

Nor will the disappointment be limited to Japan. Since the mid-1990s, American policymakers have considered the U.S.-Japan alliance crucial to U.S. policy in Asia, the ballyhooed “linchpin” of peace and security in the region. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have encouraged Japan to take a more active role in global peacekeeping and reconstruction activities, and to work closely with the U.S. military and cooperate on missile defense. The implicit logic, shared by a number of Japan’s own leaders, was that a rejuvenated alliance — bolstered by an economically resurgent Japan — would counterbalance China’s influence in Asia and would serve as the core of a broader network of democratic alliances in the region.

But the combination of political paralysis and the need to cope with the consequences of social and economic change — namely Japan’s aging, shrinking population and its society’s growing inequality — have dashed these hopes. The latest round of political turbulence and economic stagnation only reinforce the idea that Japan will not become the active security ally that a handful of leading policymakers, led by Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye, had hoped for when in 2000 they drafted a report calling for Japan to be the “U.K. of Asia.” The most likely outcome at this point is a Japan mostly concerned with its domestic problems, allied with the United States — and perhaps even more dependent on it for security — but deeply concerned about not being drawn into American wars.

At some point, political paralysis may give way to more dynamic leadership in Tokyo; today’s struggles may only be the growing pains of a new political system. After all, a half-century of LDP rule shaped the relationship between Japan’s government and opposition parties, government and bureaucracy, government and interest groups, and voters and politicians — these old structures can’t be broken overnight. Japan may still end up with a more transparent, more representative political system, in which policy is the product of open deliberation among political parties instead of collusion behind closed doors between politicians, bureaucrats, and private interests. Indeed, the forthcoming DPJ leadership election is important in that Kan and Ozawa represent these contrasting approaches to government. Based on opinion polls, there is little doubt about which style of governance the public prefers.

But even with a more capable government in power, it appears that the Japanese people have made their choice regarding their country’s future. The Japanese public appears to want comfort over competition, a secure retirement for its aging population over the glories of global power. Given the political constraints, Kan and his successors will have their hands full delivering even these more modest goals.

Tobias Harris is the economy, trade, and business fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, USA and an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk advisory firm.