Prime Minister Naoto Kan has been in office for just 10 months, and was fighting off calls for his resignation after questions about campaign contributions just hours before the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan last Friday. His predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, resigned after less than nine months in office after his failure to close a controversial U.S. military base prompted a collapse of his popularity in the polls. The three prime ministers before that—Taro Aso, Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe—each lasted only about a year, too.
That’s five prime ministers in five years. Look back further, and the numbers are even more astounding. In the 66 years since World War II ended, Japan has had 32 leaders. The Week points out that if you leave out Junichiro Koizumi, who had an exceptional five-year run from 2001 to 2006, 14 prime ministers have lasted a total of 16 years. No wonder former president of Brazil Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva joked that in Japan, “you say 'good morning' to one prime minister and 'good afternoon' to a different one.”
As a result, is it any wonder Japan’s leadership is getting criticized for its bungled communication and seeming lack of control over the response to the devastation and nuclear crisis its country now faces? Kan has hardly had time to get his footing, much less ensure that emergency preparedness plans for unthinkable catastrophes were in place. Combined with a culture averse to conflict—and a political system that traditionally left great power to bureaucrats and large but now weakened corporations—the revolving door at the top of Japan’s government only adds to the weak and decentralized style of governing that now threatens the country’s response to an unthinkable disaster. The New York Times put it well: “Never has postwar Japan needed strong, assertive leadership more—and never has its weak, rudderless system of governing been so clearly exposed.”
To make matters worse, Kan and his brief predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, are members of the Democratic Party of Japan, which is in charge for the first time after their main opposition, the Liberal Democratic Party, dominated politics in Japan for 50 years. That leaves Mr. Kan’s administration even more inexperienced and with less established ties than the abrupt political changes in prior successions.
Americans think House representatives are always in election mode—imagine if the presidency had changed hands every 10 or 12 months for the past five years. (Japan’s prime ministers are selected from the dominant party or coalition of parties in the legislature and must maintain their party’s support to stay in power.) The political maneuvering and gamesmanship would be exponentially more tiresome than it is now.
But that’s hardly the worst outcome of such a rapidly spinning door at the top. Strong relationships with foreign leaders, business groups and, of course, the public have little time to be cultivated. Continuity between administrations is surely an afterthought. And there’s no time to develop the sort of management experience that comes from leading something as indescribably complex as the government of an entire country. There is no chief executive job in the world that can prepare a leader for that.
Worst of all, such rapid turnover atop Japan’s government has surely fostered a focus on short-term thinking, rather than the sort of long-term planning that helps you redirect a country’s economy, lay the groundwork for future growth or, as we see now, have the public information strategies and catastrophe preparedness systems in place to respond to a disaster as devastating as the trio of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear tragedies in Japan.
There may be no way to plan for an event of such biblical proportions, no matter how steady and strong the leadership in Japan may have been. And granted, the situation could be even worse—Japan’s engineering and building codes helped prevent the worst destruction, and even as frustrations understandably rise, the Japanese people have responded with a calm and a resilience that is a model for the world. But a little more continuity, a lot less change at the top and more time for long-term planning by Japan’s prime ministers would surely give the country an even better shot at confronting the tragic nightmare it faces now.