Polls do a number on Japan's leaders

By Chico Harlan
Monday, January 31, 2011

IN TOKYO The people of Japan love opinion polls that measure the popularity of their prime minister. The problem is, they almost never love the prime minister himself. The public calls him weak. The media grill him about his plummeting popularity. The prime minister, in turn, becomes increasingly aware of his tenuous support, making him weaker still, and of course even less popular.

Having observed this cycle for two decades now, political experts in Tokyo can illustrate the state of Japanese leadership with a repeated gesture - a hand following the slope of a nose dive. Though nobody blames opinion polls as a direct cause of Japan's revolving-door leadership, the steady stream of dismal popularity ratings has emerged as a distinct political force, often signaling an administration's doom even as it tries to combat Japan's vast economic and social problems.

In less than eight months on the job, the current prime minister, Naoto Kan, has already seen his rate of support among the voting public plummet from 60 percent to 29 percent, according to one major poll. Though Kan recently said that he won't step down even if that support "drops to 1 percent," recent history suggests he'll be challenged to keep his job into the summer. Most experts in Japan say that once a premier's support drops below 30 percent, it has little chance to recover.

None of Japan's previous four prime ministers lasted more than a year. Kan has said in recent weeks that Japan should raise its consumption tax and join a broad free-trade pact - a move that probably would require a contentious overhaul of the powerful agriculture industry - but those divisive initiatives require a powerful leader, experts say.

"He has to take on these issues and sell it to the public," said Gerry Curtis, an expert on Japanese politics at Columbia University. "Problem is, he has shown no skill in mobilizing public support. . . . If his [popularity] numbers break below 20 percent, he'll be forced out."

Such high expectations

Tokyo's nonstop political polling is conducted by more than half a dozen media outlets, including the world's three most widely circulated newspapers, the Kyodo wire service and powerhouse broadcaster NHK. Some conduct polls monthly. Others do it biweekly. Poll numbers often translate into front-page news, especially when they're miserable. Sometimes, articles quote from a collective record book of data, referencing the all-time-low 4.4 percent approval rating that Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita hit in May 1989. He resigned the following month.

In the two-plus decades since - a period of economic stagnation - Japan has cycled through 15 prime ministers, only one of them popular. That was Junichiro Koizumi (2001-06), equal parts charismatic and bold, his hair a waterfall of white. Since Koizumi's retirement, however, the political turnover has accelerated, negating the chance for long-term economic policies and at times frustrating Japan's diplomatic relationship with Washington.

Each of Japan's leaders since Koizumi has had a similar experience with the polls, entering office with broad popularity and maintaining it at least for a matter of weeks. Shinzo Abe resigned after a year. Yasuo Fukuda resigned a year later. Fukuda's replacement was Taro Aso, whose approval rating, two months into his tenure, dropped to 24 percent. Aso called the number "very severe," and the opposition leader, Yukio Hatoyama, portrayed it as a sign of "no confidence." When Aso called for a general election, Hatoyama's party, the Democratic Party of Japan, swept into power, with Hatoyama as its leader. He started with a 69 percent support rate. It dropped 50 points in eight months, and Hatoyama resigned at the beginning of June 2010.

Assessing the popularity numbers, Tokyo-based political analyst Minoru Morita notes the pattern of high expectations and subsequent disenchantment. The initial expectations, Morita said, reflect a culture that is not naturally cynical, even in the face of frustration. But cynicism, Morita said, could soon emerge amid further ineffective leadership. In the latest Nikkei poll, 21 percent said they supported the ruling party, the DPJ. Another 21 percent said they supported the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. But 40 percent supported no party whatsoever.

In such a political climate, embattled leaders such as Kan set off on a desperate hunt for popularity, proposing bold on-the-fly measures, trying to show resolve. There's a danger to this, of course. "Here's a prime minister who seems to have, as his primary goal, staying as prime minister," Curtis said.

Waiting for the rate to fall

To measure Japan's political feelings, the Nikkei Research polling team conducts its survey in the last weekend of every month, compiling data from 1,000 10-minute phone conversations. The whole process requires 50 people working the phones. They start Friday afternoon, going straight through the weekend - 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. They dial land-line numbers only, randomly generated by a computer. By Monday morning, Nikkei's various newspapers and financial publications have a headline about the prime minister's approval rating. Nikkei's December data quoted the support rate for Kan at 21 percent.

"Once the administration enters a support rate of 10 to 19 percent," said Matsuda Takakazu, an editorial writer at the Mainichi newspaper, "it can be understood that in about three months he'll be gone."

For years, Japanese prime ministers have attempted to boost their popularity by reshuffling their cabinets. Fukuda, in his 364 days in office, managed to replace 13 of 17 ministers. Kan opted for smaller-scale changes this January, keeping his foreign, finance and defense ministers in place, but bringing in a former leader of the opposition party, Kaoru Yosano, to build consensus for tax and welfare reform efforts.

"I have undertaken, or am seeking to undertake, this reshuffling of the cabinet and the party organization from the viewpoint of overcoming a crisis facing Japan," Kan said after announcing his decision.

But the cabinet reshuffle, according to snap polls, only boosted Kan's support rate by 5 percent. "Normally," Morita said, "you can expect 20 percent." Asked whether Kan's new cabinet will achieve anything significant, 70 percent of respondents in a Yomiuri poll answered "No."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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