Japanese voters would be forgiven for not remembering who their last prime minister was. There have been so many – five in the past five years – that you need a cheat-sheet to keep track of them all.
The list of has-beens grew longer today after Naoto Kan announced that he is vacating the post just 14 months after being sworn in. His departure reinforces the widely held view that Japan’s highest office is little more than a revolving door for the country’s blinkered political elite.
Among the seven lawmakers in Kan’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) who are jockeying for the job, Seiji Maehara, a former foreign minister, has emerged as the frontrunner. Whoever wins will start with a to-do list that would seem a setup for failure: resolve the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, calm fears about radiation-contaminated food, prevent a strong yen from hurting exports, fix Japan’s tattered public finances, rebuild coastal areas devastated by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami.
“Japanese voters have very low expectations for the prime minister,” says Keiichi Tsunekawa, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “They want a decisive leader who has clear-cut reform policies and can stick to a plan for three or four years, at least.”
That’s a tall order in a country where all but one prime minister in the past two decades has been out after just a year. (The one: Junichiro Koizumi, the charismatic, wavy-haired Elvis aficionado who led from 2001 to 2006.) Lately, Japanese voters have become so used to a short-term leader that it’s made them impatient for immediate results, and easily disappointed. It has also paralysed government bureaucrats who do the daily grunt work and created headaches for Japan’s allies who are constantly adjusting to a new guy at the Kantei, the prime minister’s residence.
It has even confused the media. In May, the weekly German newspaper Die Zelt published an illustration of the leaders of the G8 countries that showed a Japanese leader who bore a striking resemblance to Taro Aso, prime minister from 2008 to 2009.
Kan’s tenure will likely be remembered for what it could have been. The public initially rallied to Kan’s call for unity after the earthquake and tsunami hammered northeastern Japan. “We are going to create Japan again from scratch,” he told the nation back in March. But six months later the public’s faith in Kan is gone; his popularity ratings nosedived and even his own party wanted him out. Despite his efforts to shift the country’s energy policy away from nuclear power, Kan is likely to be remembered more for his administration’s bungled response to the disaster.
Oddly, Kan scripted his own exit back in June. Facing calls for his ouster, Kan hinted that he would leave once he had carried out his legislative agenda. With parliament’s approval on Tuesday of the last item on Kan’s agenda – a law forcing utilities to buy power from renewable energy sources – he ordered his Cabinet to pack up. Earlier this week, Kan told a parliamentary committee: “It’s not as if I am quitting because I did something wrong and had to take responsibility for it – not at all.” True, but it’s not exactly the parting shot of an accomplished leader.