Japan’s Leadership Conundrum: Commentary and Perspective

At the end of 2012, Japan found itself swearing in a new leader for the seventh time in less than a decade.  For a country in prolonged socioeconomic and political inertia, its leadership has been the sole indication of significant shifts in the post-bubble era.  These significant shifts, needless to say, have been less than positive.  In particular, the precariousness and inability of Japanese leaders in recent years to sustain their respective administrations have left many pundits and experts to be more immediately concerned about how long an incumbent prime minister can remain in power than about other aspects of and challenges in his leadership.  With Shinzo Abe’s “resumption” of prime ministership, people can only wonder how long he can stay in power, given that his first term had been one of the most ignominious in Japanese political history.  Barely spanning a year, the first Abe administration was plagued with several problems such as mishandled social security records and diplomatic gaffes, ended in sudden resignation that threw the Japanese government into a mad scramble for a successor, and inadvertently began not only the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) loss of dominance, but also resumed Japan’s revolving-door leadership in the 2000s.  Abe, then, has the unenviable task of canceling out his unimpressive past administration, mollifying critics and skeptics, contending with enduring domestic and international issues, and drawing a nation out of a deep malaise exacerbated by the 3/11 triple disaster while remaining in office long enough to do all these and more.

A greater knowledge of the dynamics of Japanese government and politics would reveal that Japan’s leadership conundrum is a more complex and longstanding matter than widely believed and presented.  In Japan’s postwar history, only a handful of prime ministers managed considerable longevity in office, with a significant number of them having served for no more than two years.  Junichiro Koizumi, the third longest serving prime minister, was also the first to remain in office for more than five years since 1972.  Japan has had over 30 prime ministers in the postwar era, which is more than double the number of postwar prime ministers who served in the British Parliament.  While political and socioeconomic contingencies have altered through time and despite the achievement of tremendous economic success, the necessity for a strong leader has thus always persisted.  Japan’s revolving-door leadership, it warrants assertion, has become more apparent due to the country’s unprecedented socioeconomic and institutional problems.  It is not a characteristic exclusive to the post-Koizumi era.

What are the roots of Japan’s leadership conundrum?  Although Japanese politics has had its fair share of scandals and exposés on corruption, these scandals and exposés do not mainly account for the swift transition in administration, particularly in the post-Koizumi era.  Furthermore, to argue that Japan’s leadership quandary owes itself to the substitution of one weak leader for another would be to overlook a fundamental question:  Why does Japan have weak leaders?  There are pertinent factors that make and/or keep them weak.  One can even go so far as to argue that Japan has had the predilection to produce weak leaders.  In order to effectively grasp and dissect such quandary, one must look at the structures in place, relationships among key entities that determine government activity, and definition of governance in and of Japan.

The “Iron Triangle” of elected officials, bureaucracy, and interest groups has been steering political administration and governmental structures since the end of World War II.  It defined the 1955 System, or the decades-long dominance of the LDP in Japanese electoral politics.  It was also instrumental in producing Japan’s postwar miracle, as the elected officials, bureaucracy, and interest groups collaborated with one another to consolidate interests and accordingly draft them into policy and enforce them as legislation.  The Iron Triangle, at its best, guaranteed common purpose and course of action, as well as little to no tendency for filibustering or resistance.  It has produced a mechanism by which the enforcement of policies would be seamless, so much so that Japanese parliamentary hearings have become a mere matter of formality rather than a venue for genuine deliberation.  Further compounded by politico-cultural practices of consensus and back-channeling, policies tend to be hammered out and agreed upon well before they are officially proposed to Parliament.

However, the descent of recession in the 1990s began to draw out the vulnerabilities and shortcomings of the Iron Triangle, consequently presenting perversions of the entities that comprised it.  The Iron Triangle’s strengths have proven to be its major drawbacks.  The symbiotic relationship ensconced in it has exposed the myopia of interest groups, overreaching of and overdependence on the bureaucracy, and complacency and failure of elected officials to build expertise, competence, and decisive authority.  With policymaking established as the domain of the bureaucracy, elected officials have ended up expending their energies on jockeying for power within their political party and securing votes for succeeding elections, rather than reshaping and balancing authority when it comes to decision-making.

Japan’s leadership conundrum, as well as the classification of a prime minister as either weak or strong, is a matter of the incumbent prime minister’s ability (or lack thereof) to originate and move policy from his post as much as it is a matter of his effectiveness in implementing an agenda.  The emasculation of the prime ministership has accordingly increased over time with every leader contented to leave the task of running the country to the bureaucrats.   The practice of proactive leadership, specifically through the shift of the locus of power to the Office of the Prime Minister, is the reason why leaders like Koizumi have the distinction in Japanese political discourse of being strong leaders.  Saturation or overconcentration of power, hence, lies at the core of the situation – the bureaucracy, whose predetermined policies tend to outlast official tenure, holds the country aloft; thus rendering the government unable to institutionalize proactive leadership and top-to-bottom decision-making, as well as do away with “bad habits.”

Pursued assiduously since the 1990s, administrative reform has served as a possible way of effecting meaningful changes in Japanese government.  Based on whether or not reform efforts have been proposed and carried out, past prime ministers have been successful.  However, an extensive examination of the quality of reforms would reveal their accomplishments to be merely tangential solutions, never quite close to making substantial inroads for structural overhaul.  Furthermore, the difficulty in carrying out administrative reform lies in the fact that most target institutions for reform usually turn out to be the very institutions that have propelled and continue to propel officials into power.

Aside from the Iron Triangle, there also exists the matter of party politics, in which factions, seniority, and lineage play vital roles.  Factionalism is ubiquitous and a core feature of Japanese party politics.  Members of political parties must align themselves with factions if they are to advance their agenda and gain support for particular committee positions in the Parliament or secure their seats in upcoming elections.  Large and influential factions possess considerable influence in selecting Japan’s leaders, as was purportedly the case with Yasuo Fukuda’s replacement of Abe in 2007.  Seniority is a crucial factor in the selection of and succession in leadership; Abe broke the mold when he became Japan’s youngest postwar prime minister at the age of 52.  All Japanese prime ministers in the 2000s, with the exception of Naoto Kan, have illustrious political pedigrees, making them products and successors of systems established, if not shaped, by their predecessors.

It is worth reiterating that the systems that have seemingly originated and exacerbated Japan’s leadership quandary are the same systems that had held the country through its postwar revitalization.  The Iron Triangle and single-party dominance of the LDP brought stability that made it possible for Japan to recover and progress remarkably in such a short span of time.  These are systems emulated by other Asian countries in order to achieve economic progress, and so to dismiss them as mere obstacles is to overlook their distinct aspects and intricacies.  One must also examine the issues and challenges that Japanese leadership has to face.  The aging of the population, falling birthrate, declining labor force, and social security are just some of the many issues that the prime minister and his administration have to confront.  These are issues unique to a post-industrial nation, requiring unprecedented solutions.  Perhaps it is the lack of and failure to introduce innovative measures that contribute to Japan’s revolving-door leadership conundrum.

What are the implications of Japan’s quick leadership transition on its foreign relations?  Have there been specific, marked differences in the case of Philippines-Japan relations resulting from Japan’s quick leadership transition?  To answer these questions substantially, it is worth looking into Japanese foreign policy and its implementation throughout the postwar period.  It can be argued that the basic principles of Japanese foreign policy have not changed despite transitions in leadership since such transitions from 1955 to 2009 have occurred within the sphere of the LDP – officials may have changed, but the principles and agenda stay constant because of the uninterrupted rule of a single party in government.  In the case of the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) administration, its approach and interpretation may illustrate differences, but its agenda, concerns, priorities and even politicking are fundamentally similar to those of the LDP.  Perhaps this is not surprising considering a number of DPJ’s members were once LDP members, and the decades-long dominance of the LDP has essentially defined political regime in Japan.  In addition, bureaucracy plays a key role in policy formulation; bureaucrats remain to formulate and implement policy even when leaders come and go.

Augmentations notwithstanding, Japan’s foreign policy agenda has remained constant.  Although DPJ rule might have attempted to distance Japan away from the United States, there is no denying that the United States is the country’s most important bilateral partner.  Japanese foreign policy will continue to hinge upon Japan’s relations with the United States.  Northeast Asia will always be of vital importance to Japan, and the same can be said of Southeast Asia.  The United Nations (UN) will always be a crucial avenue for Japanese diplomacy.  Japan will likely continue bolstering its relations with the Philippines through development assistance, people-to-people exchanges, and common politico-security interests, economic and civic cooperation, among others.  Unless events that have paradigm-shifting and direct impact on Japan happen in the global and regional spheres and as long as national interests are tethered to the parameters of the Peace Constitution, the basic objectives and modes of implementation of Japanese foreign policy are likely to remain the same regardless of quick successions in leadership.