Breaking Away from Indecisive Politics


In his policy speech given to launch the plenary session of the House of Representatives on January 24, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko stated: “As this year should be ‘the First Year for the Rebirth of Japan,’ I will aim, above everything else, to break away from ‘the politics that can’t decide.’” This was a significant pronouncement. Traditionally Japan’s prime ministers have used their policy speeches to speak about their own political goals. Prime Minister Noda, however, looked dispassionately at the current situation in which political goals cannot be achieved and announced his aim to break free from this deadlock.

Moving from Silence to Progress

Given the rut in which Japanese politics are now mired, this is a very important point. The Japanese people have grown tired of the annual change in prime minister since Koizumi Jun’ichirō left office in 2006. Why is there no sign of a strong leader? Why do important political issues end up being put on the back burner? Why are politics so ineffectual? Over the past five years, Japan has lost some of its international standing, its domestic industrial infrastructure has weakened, and the fiscal crisis has reached dangerous heights. But even when faced head-on with these substantial dangers on a national scale, politicians have persisted in their silence. And this has exacerbated the people’s feeling of powerlessness.

At the very least, Prime Minister Noda is aiming to break free from these “politics that can’t decide.” In fact, the Noda administration has voiced its position with regard to a number of difficult issues passed down from the LDP governments in power until 2009, such as Japan’s participation in the TPP (Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership), an increase in the consumption tax, and relaxation of the Three Principles limiting Japanese arms exports. In this way the present government is showing courageous determination to move forward without fear of popular criticism. This kind of courage may not necessarily lead to ideal results on the political front, though. A number of stumbling blocks remain.

How to Create a “Strong Prime Minister”

Why have indecisive politics proliferated? The political scientist Machidori Satoshi of Kyoto University distances himself from the “weak prime minister” argument rooted in a view of the culture of politics as “systematized irresponsibility,” focusing instead on the presence of numerous strong prime ministers both before and after World War II.(*1) In fact, the average tenure of prime ministers has been longer after the war than before it, with a number of premiers—Yoshida Shigeru, Ikeda Hayato, Satō Eisaku, Nakasone Yasuhiro, and Koizumi Jun’ichirō all occupying the office for periods exceeding 1,500 days. As factors that enable a “strong prime minister,” Machidori points out the importance of political techniques that “make skillful use of situational factors to keep the opposition on the back foot, thus enabling lengthy terms in office.” The problem is that the systemic factors that can be wielded in this way to keep the opposition in check, a must for the appearance of a strong prime ministers, are in short supply.

We must note that the breakdown in leadership following Prime Minister Koizumi’s time in office has been due not just to political culture and the abilities of the prime ministers themselves, but also to various systemic constraints. Some of these constraints, broadly defined, are the standstill in the legislative process caused by the excessive power wielded by the House of Councillors; the insufficient capability of the Kantei, the prime minister’s office, to coordinate and issue directions when addressing issues falling within the purview of multiple ministries; the dearth of staff available to assist the prime minister’s own policy planning; the lack of a coordinating function between the ruling and opposition parties; limited budgets for and ability to effectively carry out public relations on the part of the Kantei and the cabinet; and the inadequate decision-making capacity of both the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party, which they should be expected to possess as modern political organizations. Added to this list is the Japanese media’s insufficient ability to analyze politics.

We may be able to restore strong political leadership to Japan by bolstering the systemic factors that encourage the emergence of strong prime ministers. We cannot rely solely on the qualities of individual politicians in hoping for the appearance of strong leaders; we must also give thought to designing appropriate political systems, a process that must involve the people as a whole. If we fail to do this, engaging only in facile, unproductive criticism of our leaders, the Japanese people may end up destroying their own democracy. (January 27, 2012)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

(*1) ^ See Machidori’s essay “Seiji bunka to shushō no rīdāshippu” (Political Culture and the Prime Minister’s Leadership) in Seijiteki rīdā to bunka (Political Leaders and Culture), edited by Tsutsui Kiyotada (Chikura Publishing, 2011).

Hosoya Yuichi tax increase Noda Yoshihiko consumption tax Diet TPP leadership Koizumi Jun'ichirō DPJ LDP administration Lower House House of Represeitatives plenary session First Year for the Rebirth of Japan policy speech Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership