Six Prime Ministers in 5 years – why Japanese Prime Ministers are so short-lived

6. Sep 2011

“What is going in Japan with six prime ministers in five years?” seems to be a frequently asked question these days. In this blog post, I will try to answer this question – or at least shed some light on how we can understand current Japanese politics. We need to understand, firstly, why Kan chose to resign; secondly, why Noda became prime minister; and thirdly, whether or not Noda will last for more than a year.

Why did Kan resign as prime minister?
The short answer is that Kan made a political deal with the leaders of the two opposition parties, LDP and Komeito, to resign in exchange for quick passage of new laws. This only leaves us with more questions and the longer answer is that LDP and Komeito control the Upper House in the Japanese Diet and are thus able to delay the passage of bills for at least 60 days. After 60 days the Lower House can overrule the Upper House’s decision, but only with a two thirds majority (which DPJ with a bit of help from a few other parties are able to). 60 days is a long time in the current situation, where Japan is faced with a tremendous task of rebuilding after the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident at Fukushima. Waiting more than 60 days for passage of new budget for rebuilding and a new energy law would have put a lot of pressure on DPJ from the Japanese people. The voters would understand the DPJ as irresponsible, if nothing happened.

Popular support for Kan and his government was low to begin with due to other political failures, so it was easy for the LDP and Komeito to put Kan under pressure.

But in Japan, you don’t have to be prime minister to have influence over government policies. There are many examples of prime ministers as mere puppets – or mikoshi as the Japanese say referring to the portable shrine used during festivals. The shrine is steered through the streets by the people carrying it. Kan may not be prime minister now, but is still influential as one of those backing Noda.

Kan has left the scene, but only to go back stage. In the eyes of the Japanese, he played the role of the hero – and in Japan the hero often dies fighting to very end to fulfil a greater purpose. Kan argued many times, that the important thing was to pass the extra budget to begin rebuilding and to pass a new bill changing the energy system moving toward renewable energy and separating the authorities regulating the nuclear power plant and the authorities checking the plants.

Why did Noda become prime minister?
In Japan there are two archetypical prime minister. The first is the strong and charismatic leader who is at centre stage clearly articulating politics and direction. The prime ministers of the economic miracle period are usually associated with this type. Only Koizumi from 2001-2006 is a current example. Then there is the weak prime minister controlled by a shadow shogun or at least controlled by the shifting powers of intraparty interests – the infamous factions (or habatsu).

Both types of prime minister share some characteristics. Their strength and duration of time as prime minister depends on first of all, the level of support from the elected incumbents within own party, the level of support from all members of the party, and finally, the level of support from the voters (often filtered through the media).

The DPJ is split between two camps; those behind Ozawa, the former leader of DPJ, grand old man in Japanese politics and founder of several parties. And those not behind Ozawa. When the DPJ incumbents voted for new party president five candidates ran. In the first round no one won majority, but Ozawa’s candidate, Kaieda, was the strongest. In the second round, only Noda and Kaieda ran, and Noda only won, because a majority of incumbents would not like Ozawa to become the next strong shadow shogun, because his politics are too conservative to many. Noda, 54, is young (in Japanese terms) and represents the large group of younger politicians who wants politics to have content and vision – in stead of being about intraparty fighting and tactics.

Noda gained the support of Kan’s faction and also from the popular former foreign minister, Maehara who was one of the five candidates, and Noda was quick to say that he would follow in the footsteps of Kan and continue Kan’s politics – and also pay honour to the deal Kan made with LDP and Komeito to revise DPJ’s political manifesto. Noda has also chosen to give different factions within the DPJ a place in his government.

Will Noda continue the trend of short-lived prime ministers?
So it seems that Noda is already in place firmly tied to the mikoshi with very little manoeuvrability. However, several factors suggest that he might step out of the shadows of Kan and other intraparty and opposition party interests. If he can gain strong support from party members he will be able to win the formal election of party president to be held September 2012. How could he do this? He has already shown himself to be able to create alliances and is currently the best candidate in the eyes of the anti-Ozawa factions. Noda also possesses strong rhetorical skills. He has been training these almost every for the past 24 years by speaking in public at train stations explaining his politics to ordinary Japanese people. He has already demonstrated his ability to speak clearly and using images easy to understand in his inauguration speech. Prime Minister Koizumi was an expert in public speaking and understood how to translate this into political power. Maybe Noda can do the same?

But even though Noda understands intraparty tactics and has remarkable rhetorical skills, he still needs to be able to solve the massive problems Japan face. These include credible and effective rebuilding after the earthquake and tsunami – and control of and long term clean-up after the Fukushima nuclear disaster; the stagnant economy; the fast growing number of elders and smaller and smaller workforce to support paying for pensions and health care; various unsolved international challenges such as an agreement with the USA over Futenma Air Base in Okinawa, Northern islands dispute with Russia, and relations with China just to mention a few. But the biggest challenge by far is the people’s lack of trust in government. And Noda only has one year to convince his own party that he is the best leader to represent the DPJ in the elections for the Lower House to be held in August 2013 at the latest.

The first task is to kick start the Japanese economy through massive rebuilding of the disaster hit region. To finance this, Noda will try to implement a temporary tax and also gradually increase the consumption tax. Whether or not these moves will be seen as unpopular depends on how soon the people will experience real and positive change – and how well they will perceive Noda’s public appearances. We must remember that the low support rates for the past five prime ministers was due to the failure of solving Japan’s problems.


Lau Øfjord Blaxekjær

PhD Student,
Department of Political Science,
Copenhagen University