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When every card’s a joker

by Thomas Dillon

Special To The Japan Times

Once — a dozen years or so ago — I yawned my way past a politician giving a “stump” speech to the early morning commuters at my station. In fact, I had to side-step him on the narrow walkway.

Only then did I notice who he was: Naoto Kan — the current prime minister.

Of course he wasn’t prime minister then. But he was still one of the brighter lights of Japanese politics, with his star clearly on the rise. So I did a double take on the walkway. How about that? Me and Naoto Kan, face-to-face! And I thought, “Naoto Kan! One day he might be prime minister!”

Turn the clock and this week I switched on the tube to again find myself face-to-face with Naoto Kan, only this time on TV. And I again did a double-take.

And I thought, “Naoto Kan! Is he prime minister — still?”

I mean . . . What the hell? It’s been a year! So what if he somehow survived the recent vote of no confidence? Isn’t this Japan? Where we change prime ministers the way we change sheets?

A bit wrinkly and off it goes! With the new sheet almost identical to the old.

The question with Japanese politics always seems not, “Who leads?” But rather . . . “Who’s next?”

It’s a whirlwind of turnover that is almost entertaining.

Indeed, the merry-go-round of leadership has become as Japanese as cherry blossoms. Go for over a year without a change and we are overdue. In my three decades in Japan, I have averaged a new prime minister once every 18 months. Yet yank out long-term leaders like Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi and the average drops to about one per annum.

Such change gets addictive. I need my shakeup in prime ministers like I need my morning coffee. No coffee and the whole day feels out of whack. No new prime minister and I might as well spend the year in bed.

Or maybe the better analogy is one of a deck of cards. We need a good shuffle every few months. And whatever new card comes out doesn’t matter a bit.

They’re all jokers anyway.

It’s not like the rapid-fire administrations have rocked the boat. Rather Japanese society seems becalmed. No matter who is in charge, things float on like always. The earth still turns. The trains still run. Death and taxes keep on coming.

Changing prime ministers is like changing the channels on Japanese TV. No matter what button you push, it’s always a silly game show. Of course, to the prime ministers themselves, that show might be entitled, “Wheel of Misfortune.” They begin, they get their feet wet, and then . . . kerplop . . . they’re sunk.

When a fresh administration takes office, there is always a commemorative photo of the prime minister and his new Cabinet. Someday some clever bureaucrat is going to realize we need not retake that photo.

Just keep one shot and then Photoshop the heads. Japanese are nothing if not efficient.

Some say the steadiness of the bureaucracy is why change doesn’t matter. The engine of the government hums on no matter who drives. With the prime minster and Cabinet mostly along for the ride.

So, a friend argues, political parties here might do better to run and elect entertainment figures, like singers and actors. They’re much better in front of cameras and come already trained in the politician’s chief career specialty — scandals.

And with whom, he asks, would you rather be face-to-face? Naoto Kan? Or actress Nanako Matsushima? He has a point.

Analysts say one reason for the roulette spin of leadership is the politicians themselves. With the two key factors being:

1. They’re inept. 2. They spend more time clubbing each other down than hammering out effective policies.

Yet to me this sounds like politics everywhere. The difference being that leaders here don’t carry big enough clubs. There are no Teddy Roosevelts or Winston Churchills in Japan. True, every country could use a Churchill. Whose famous cadence — especially in these radioactive days of post-earthquake need — hangs over Japanese leadership like a bon voyage wreath . . .

Never have so many been so exasperated by so few.

Then there are some who say Japan’s gong show of leadership can be best tied to the overall indifference of the populace. Which is much more interested in prime time TV than prime ministers.

Yet the depth of the current disaster might change all that. The next election might see voters turn out in their own tsunami wave of passion. And the party that wins might then have a club-sized mandate.

I’ll believe it when I see it. In the meantime, I’ll sit back and hope for Nanako Matsushima.

In any case, good luck to Mr. Kan and his now lame duck government — which seems earnest despite its impotence. He may have dodged the recent bullet of no confidence but we all know the Wheel of Misfortune is going to turn. It always does.

And we will then have some new “Kan” to kick around.

Probably for about a year.