1 June 2010
John Nilsson-Wright

Dr John Nilsson-Wright

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


Even by the merry-go round standards of succession in contemporary Japanese politics, 260 days is a remarkably short time in office for a leader who came to power promising to do so much to transform Japan's place in the world.

The precipitating cause of the resignation of Japan's prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has been the failure to make good on his bold pre-election promise to shift the US marine base at Futenma, Okinawa to a new location - either in a different part of Okinawa or elsewhere in Japan, or potentially outside Japan itself.

The Prime Minister had little choice in the matter - the existence of an earlier agreement governing the disposition of the marine base binding the previous LDP administration, painstakingly negotiated over some 15 years, as well as the strategic realities of Japan's critical security alliance with the United States, the importance of which has been underlined in recent weeks by the crisis on the Korean peninsula, ensured that the PM would have to resile from his over-ambitious, and some would argue diplomatically naive, electoral promise.

The cost of this politically has been huge, generating a massive backlash from once enthusiastic DPJ voters in Okinawa who remained strongly opposed to the Okinawa deal, and more generally from the electorate as a whole that had quickly tired of a Prime Minister who seemed both inconsistent and indecisive in his leadership style.

What comes next? Two of the potential successors within the government, Katsuya Okada, the current foreign minister, and Seiji Maehara, the transport minister, are themselves former DPJ leaders. As such they might be counted as political failures.

However, temperamentally both men are arguably politically more experienced and cautious than the outgoing premier, and might therefore be seen as relatively safe pairs of hands. Maehara, in particular, takes a hawkish, centrist position on defense and security issues and would likely be welcomed by Washington as a stabilizing influence in terms of alliance politics. A third name in the frame is that of Naoto Kan, the current finance Minister and deputy prime minister. Kan is seen by some as an abrasive personality, notorious for his run-ins with senior bureaucrats, and it is not immediately clear how effective he would be in rebuilding morale within a bruised and nervous Democratic Party.

Whoever inherits the leadership mantle, the task ahead is likely to be especially challenging. Japan's record government deficit (approaching 200% of GDP), historically high unemployment levels, and the demographic challenges of a rapidly aging and shrinking population, not to mention the fiscally expensive campaign commitments of the current DPJ administration, all add up to a major policy headache for whomever is in charge.

The rapid turnover of Japanese premiers recently - four in as many years - suggests that the country may rapidly be becoming ungovernable. At a time of great international political and economic nervousness, the cost for Japan, for the East Asian region and the world more generally of this leadership uncertainty is likely to be very high.

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