Asia
3:42 pm
Wed July 27, 2011

In Japan, Holding Onto Political Reins Proves Elusive

In recent years, Japan's leaders haven't seemed able to hang onto power for more than a year, and the current prime minister, Naoto Kan, is poised to be the latest casualty.

For months, critics have been hurling insults at the country's much-unloved leader and calling for his resignation.

The frailty of Japan's leadership reflects the fact that, more than 60 years after World War II, Japan has yet to enjoy a full-fledged democratic political system.

Kan, who has served as prime minister since June 2010, was widely expected to be forced out earlier this year. But the March earthquake and tsunami disaster, known in Japan as 3/11, prolonged his teetering tenure.

"It's hard to get rid of a prime minister who doesn't want to go," says Gerald Curtis, a professor at Columbia University and an expert on Japanese politics.

He notes that Kan has managed to cling to his job despite unusual vitriol from not only the other side of the aisle, but even from members of his own Democratic Party.

"I've known him for a long time, and my impression is he's lost touch with reality. And he thinks that by keeping on going, and saying he can get beyond nuclear energy and other things with popular appeal, that opinion will turn around, and people will support him," Curtis says.

'Energized' By Criticism?

The alternative universe that the increasingly isolated prime minister seems to inhabit was on full view recently, when he made remarks that astonished this normally reticent and circumspect country.

"Lots of people in Parliament say they're sick of seeing my face," he said during a recent speech. "You really don't want to see my face anymore? You really don't? You really don't? You really don't?"

"If you don't want to see my face, then hurry up and pass my bills," he said.

Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University, says the former civil rights activist seems to revel in being reviled.

"He's used to getting dismissive comments. He's used to being isolated, and he has certain instincts when it comes to fighting for power — in some ways, getting energized by criticism," Nakano says.

In Search Of Leader With Vision

The gridlock in Tokyo may have preserved Kan's regime for a few months longer. But the political squabbling has been catastrophic for victims of the March disaster, slowing down disbursement of the tens of billions of dollars to northeast Japan, and making it impossible for the country to make decisions on pressing issues ranging from how to shift away from nuclear power, to tax reform, to free trade, says Nakano.

"The effect is very debilitating. Even before the disasters, Japan had mountains of problems," says Nakano. "And yet, even after the worst disaster, politicians did not rise to the occasion. They continued on petty political bickering and refused to offer alternatives to the Kan government they so bitterly criticized."

Kan is expected to finally bow to the inevitable and step down sometime in the coming weeks. What comes next, say analysts such as Waseda University's Tetsuro Kato, could be even worse than the current gridlock.

"We know Kan is a bad leader. We don't know anyone else who can do better," Kato says.

Japan is still a country in search of a leader and a vision for its future. The leadership vacuum is a legacy of more than a half-century under a single party, the conservatives.

The rocky transition to a real two-party system, analysts say, will likely take years. And until that happens, Japan will be faced with leadership much like the short reign of Naoto Kan.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.