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The U.S. needs a real partner in the new Japanese prime minister

By Bruce Klingner and Derek Scissors - posted Thursday, 1 September 2011

As dependable as the tide, a new prime minister has washed ashore in Japan. Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda is the latest iteration of what has become an annual ritual of Japanese leadership change. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has been unceremoniously tossed aside, although his 15-month term will be remembered as relatively long by recent Japanese standards.

The future of Japan matters immensely to America’s interests in the Asia Pacific. The seemingly interminable drift in its political leadership for that reason is very troubling.

More of the same in Japanese politics


The Japanese populace fervently hoped that the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of March 11 would induce politicians to overcome their partisan and factional bickering. Alas, such was not the case. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), aided by Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, became even more determined to bring Kan down.

Kan, who struggled to gain his footing throughout his time in office, lost the remnants of public favor for his administration’s disastrous response to the March disasters. Kan’s inability to make decisions or accept responsibility doomed his chances of remaining as leader.

In June, Kan beat back a no-confidence vote by agreeing to resign. Kan’s hollow victory—the legislative equivalent of offering to quit before being fired—bought him some time, but it was for naught. During his subsequent tenure as dead man walking, Kan frittered away the opportunity to be a bold and decisive leader for a nation yearning for action.

But Kan shouldn’t be singled out for excessive criticism. He was no worse than the parade of his predecessors—six within five years. One might assume the prime minister’s nameplate is now affixed with Velcro to facilitate easy replacement. Indeed, Kan’s wife admitted that she didn’t pack more than summer clothes when her husband was selected as prime minister last June.

The DPJ star has faded

The DPJ was elected in August 2009 with euphoric expectations of bold new policies and a revolutionary transformation of the Japanese political system. However, the DPJ has proven to be as feckless and infested with factionalism as the LDP regime that it replaced. Neither of the DPJ prime ministers distinguished himself, which reflects poorly on the party.


In many ways, the DPJ was elected primarily because it was not the LDP. The discredited LDP, however, won a striking victory in last year’s upper house elections because it was not the DPJ. Unfortunately for voters, Japan is running out of political parties to run against.

Noda faces daunting agenda

Even before the March 11 triple disaster, Tokyo was struggling with a stagnant economy, staggering public debt, deteriorating demographics, growing security threats from China and North Korea, and fading international influence. Japan is hindered in addressing these challenges by a political system unable to produce national leaders that actually lead.

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About the Authors

Bruce Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

Derek Scissors, PhD, is Research Fellow in Asia Economic Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation in the United States.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Bruce Klingner
All articles by Derek Scissors

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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