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No-nos for Noda: Japan’s top 10 most useless PMs

On Sept. 2, Yoshihiko Noda was appointed the 95th prime minister of Japan, the sixth man (and they have all been men) to hold the job in five years. To mark this occasion and offer lessons to the new Democratic Party of Japan chief on how not to lead the country, the Community Page asked 10 writers to pick “Japan’s most useless postwar prime minister.” Here, in chronological order, is the rogues gallery they came up with:

1. Nobusuke Kishi (1957-60)

Nobusuke Kishi served as prime minister of Japan from February 1957 to July 1960, leaving a durable legacy of corruption and political mediocrity in his wake. In a very real way, Kishi can be viewed as the grandfather of all useless postwar Japanese prime ministers.

Not the first Japanese prime minister to have ties to the military regime during World War II, Kishi was the only one to be arrested as a Class A war criminal. Released without trial in 1948, Kishi went on to re-enter politics. In 1955, he unified Japan’s conservatives under the banner of the Liberal Democratic Party, culminating in his being made prime minister in 1957.

Kishi was notorious for creating what became known as the 1955 System, under which the LDP held a nearly continuous lock on control of Japan from 1955 until 1993. A system founded on graft and CIA money, it bred further corruption and scandal. The lack of viable political competition and a seemingly predetermined political outlook led to weak yes-men of dubious ability being promoted in politics, men who were indecisive and unable to lead.

Perhaps one of the most galling things about the system that Nobusuke Kishi brought about is that it wasn’t founded on ideological conviction — Kishi would have been happy to cast his lot with the Socialists. It wasn’t the ideology that was necessary but the system itself, and the goal was to get him into the prime minister’s office.

With the 1955 System, Kishi planted the seed of a “family tree” of exceptionally mediocre politicians that began to bear fruit in the late 1980s. The tree lives on to this day, and nobody has any idea how to kill it.

Kyle Mizokami is a San Francisco-based editor at the blog Japan Security Watch

2. Zenko Suzuki (1980-82)

When he came to power in 1980, practically unknown both domestically and internationally, most people considered Zenko Suzuki an acceptable temporary “fill-in.” The sympathy vote generated by the unexpected death of Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira a few days before general elections gave the LDP its biggest majority ever, but there was no clear winner among the various internal party factions.

Suzuki, who had entered politics back in 1947 as a Socialist but soon moved toward the more conservative LDP, was then elected as LDP head, and later prime minister, due to his mediation skills, which supporters hoped would be able to hold together an increasingly fractious party. He duly played his role, and despite his many international gaffes, managed to govern for a couple of years, wisely giving up on the idea of seeking a second term. He was followed by Yasuhiro Nakasone.

At that time, I had just started my career in journalism, and got very excited when, after failing to get an interview with the Emperor (which I naively pursued for many months, unaware that it was practically impossible), I was offered an unrequested interview with Suzuki. For the first time since the war, Italy’s president of the republic was going to visit Japan, and despite his institutional role being much more similar to the Emperor’s, Italian journalists in Tokyo were offered a collective press conference with the prime minister.

A long process followed, which included the submitting of questions in advance, and being told by bureaucrats only to ask the silliest of these. However, unlike my more senior colleagues, I did not play by the rules. When my turn came, instead of the question we had agreed upon (something like “Do you like Italian pasta?”) I asked him about contentious history textbooks and the issue of “war responsibility.” To my great surprise — and despite the fact the interpreter had dutifully translated the unexpected question — Suzuki, after looking into the eyes of his advisers in search of instructions, and without the slightest sign of uneasiness, started talking about how much he liked carbonara sauce and Italian cuisine.

I am not sure about his contribution to Japanese history, but certainly he was of great use to me, helping me understand who was — and probably still is — running this country.

Pio d’Emilia is the Far East Bureau chief for Italy’s Sky TG24

3. Sosuke Uno (June-August 1989)

He was in office for just 69 days, but amazingly Sosuke Uno is not the shortest-lived prime minister in Japan. He’s No. 4 in terms of speedy exits, which in itself says a lot about the state of Nagatacho.

But Uno also goes down in the books as a man disgraced. He’s a metaphor for another prominent Nagatacho characteristic: Behind every minister there is a geisha (or geishas). Cherchez la femme in the kimono and you’ll get to the guy in power.

Uno made the fatal mistake of doing what other men in Nagatacho did — but on a much smaller scale. He dallied with a geisha in Kagurazaka, which had always been Kakuei Tanaka’s prime turf (and where he was rumored to have kept eight favorite geishas at the same time). So far so business as usual. But then Uno decided to bid the lady farewell and offered her a measly ¥300,000 as a parting gift.

Oddly enough, only one tabloid picked this up and the rest of the Japanese media chose to ignore the whole thing. Then The Washington Post put out a story on Uno and his “sex scandal,” and all hell broke loose.

This wasn’t about sex, though, it was about money. Had Uno paid up the appropriate amount of cash (estimated at about ¥5,000,000), the geisha would have bowed out gracefully. Instead, she was offended and enraged and the general feeling among the Japanese public was: Who could blame her? Politicians were yucky, chauvinistic a—holes. The least they could do was to shell out the money, right?

In this respect, Uno was a hick from the sticks who just didn’t get it. Certainly the man was no thoroughbred — during WWII he was drafted out of a Kobe university, and detained in a Siberian labor camp. This should have given him major credibility points, but in the well-bred, well-appointed world of the LDP, it put him at a major disadvantage. He clawed his way to the top, and one false step sent him hurtling back to earth. Worst of all, he didn’t do one political thing.

Kaori Shoji

4. Tsutomu Hata (April-June 1994)

I actually have nothing bad to say about Japan’s 80th prime minister, Tsutomu Hata, other than the fact that I don’t actually remember him being PM. His Cabinet lasted from April 28 to June 30 of 1994, so perhaps I blinked and missed it. The Wikipedia list of Japanese prime ministers doesn’t bother with a photograph of the poor man, nicely symbolizing the image of constantly changing, faceless (headless?) leadership that Japan presents to the rest of the world, not to mention its own populace.

Of course, having prime ministers who pop up and disappear in some sort of ruling party whack-a-mole game is as much a symptom as it is a problem. Each new PM forms a new Cabinet and some reshuffle their cabinets later, which means Japan is on its 15th justice minister since 2000, 15th foreign minister, 13th finance minister, and so on. The politicians who warm these seats can probably not be expected to accomplish anything beyond remembering the ID and password to log onto the ministry network. Politicians who might have made a difference become lost in a constantly changing sea of similar faces in similar clothes, a governmental version of “Where’s Wally?”

That Japan has survived all this without becoming a banana republic is a testament to something — perhaps the skill with which the country’s even more faceless bureaucrats have ensured that despite being the copilots, they are actually flying the plane at all times.

Becoming a Cabinet minister probably involves a choice between taking on a vast organization capable of endless obfuscation and passive resistance to change, or enjoying the scenery during your year in the pilot seat — just don’t touch the controls.

One indicator of this dynamic is the fact that new prime ministers are not even free to choose their official secretaries — filling these plum posts is a well-established entitlement of certain key ministries. A steady churn of cabinets ensures that top bureaucrats too all get their turn to sit at the heart of government, the difference being that they still have chairs after the music stops.

Colin P. A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha University Law School in Kyoto

5. Tomiichi Murayama (1994-96)

Short tenures, imprudent public statements, poor character judgment, weakness under pressure — when we think of useless prime ministers, all this seems like standard operating procedure. However, Tomiichi Murayama’s particular brand of uselessness was peerless. Essentially, everything he touched turned to sh-te.

It’s not as if Murayama had a hard act to follow. His predecessor, Tsutomu Hata, only lasted two months, and was most famous for arguing (when agriculture minister) that beef imports were unnecessary because Japanese have long intestines.

But Murayama was a case study in gutless leadership. His pattern of playing evasive games with the media and the Diet served him poorly during 1995′s Kobe quake, when it took him a day to recognize the disaster and send assistance — and several days more before he even visited the site.

Even potentially notable acts stunk. Murayama’s general apology for Imperial war atrocities was caveated into meaninglessness by both sides of the political spectrum, not to mention overseas observers. He barely developed a concrete platform beyond the perpetual narrow-focus leftist issues (the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution), while ironically giving even more power to the already very-powerful Japanese police (through the Anti-Subversive Activities Act, a reaction to the Tokyo sarin gas attacks).

He was the first Socialist Party prime minister, and the last. Having made a Faustian bargain to take the top job, he then proceeded to sell his party’s soul so blatantly that in his wake the Socialists were moribund and fractured. He proved to Japan’s voters that the left cannot govern, putting the corrupt Liberal Democrats back in power for 13 more years.

No other PM can be credited with setting back Japan’s development into a two-party democracy while killing his own party in the process. Yet. For that, he gets my vote not only as Japan’s most useless, but also its flat-out worst postwar prime minister.

Debito Arudou is the Just Be Cause columnist for The Japan Times

6. Yoshiro Mori (2000-01)

Yoshiro Mori’s brief term as prime minister, from April 5, 2000, to April 26, 2001, was strewn with gaffes and errors of judgment.

Mori, an LDP backroom fixer until he emerged as leader following the sudden death of Keizo Obuchi, achieved little on the policy front. He did, though, demonstrate the kind of ham-fisted leadership of which correspondents can usually only dream.

There are too many faux pas to mention here. But among the most memorable is his description of Japan as a “divine nation, with the emperor at its center” — a stunning repudiation of postwar democratic reforms. Along the way, he managed to upset floating voters, AIDS patients and Americans, among others.

Mori, a rugby fan with the stocky build to match, quickly set the tone for his ignominious time in office, failing to execute a ceremonial bow and hand clap at Obuchi’s funeral, a gesture even George W. Bush is said to have carried off with aplomb.

Mori’s nadir came in February 2001, when he elected to finish a game of golf after being informed of the fatal sinking of the fisheries training vessel the Ehime Maru following a collision with a U.S. submarine near Hawaii.

He palpably failed to establish his international credentials as the hapless chair of the G-8 summit in Okinawa in 2000. Aside from a (probably apocryphal) joke stemming from his mangled English greeting to Bill Clinton, Mori presided over one of the most unproductive gatherings of leaders in years.

A summit that was supposed to tackle global poverty descended into farce, with French President Jacques Chirac’s love of sumo apparently taking precedence over Third World debt as a topic of discussion.

For Japan-based reporters, it was Mori’s chaotic final press conference in Okinawa that would define his term in office. His appearance before the world’s media was delayed — and mercifully brief — because, according to exasperated officials, he was simply incapable of mastering his brief.

By the time he made way for Junichiro Koizumi, Mori’s approval ratings had dipped to below 10 percent.

Justin McCurry is Tokyo correspondent for the Guardian and Observer newspapers

7. Junichiro Koizumi (2001-06)

It is perhaps odd to see Junichiro Koizumi’s name on a list of Japan’s “most useless” postwar prime ministers. Wasn’t he popular with the Japanese public? Didn’t he manage to govern for five years, locked in protracted confrontation with reactionary “opposition forces” inside and outside of the LDP? Didn’t he preside over what’s been described as Japan’s longest period of growth since World War II?

Maybe, but then Koizumi benefited from his predecessors (reforms initiated by Ryutaro Hashimoto strengthened the prime minister’s hand considerably), his successors (who in their unstinting ineptitude have made Koizumi the gold standard for Japanese leadership), and from a global economic environment that provided a boost to Japanese exporters.

Unlike other prime ministers, Koizumi belongs on this list for missed opportunities rather than incompetence or fecklessness. The more time passes the more it appears that while he talked like a transformational leader, the reality is that, despite his tremendous personal approval, Koizumi transformed very little.

The LDP, the primary target of Koizumi’s reform agenda, remains mired in the past; most of the young members brought into the party on Koizumi’s coattails in 2005 did not survive the landslide defeat of 2009, and their influence within the LDP had waned long before that.

The economy may have grown during Koizumi’s tenure, but few of his “structural reforms” have stuck and economic growth remained dependent on exports, now vulnerable to the strong yen.

Even postal privatization, Koizumi’s pet project, has stalled under his successors. Additionally, by visiting Yasukuni Shrine, Koizumi poisoned relations with China and South Korea for years, hindering the formation of constructive partnerships with Japan’s neighbors.

There is a lesson in Koizumi’s disappointing legacy: While he may have been able to make better use of his personal popularity, there are limits to what even the most charismatic leader in recent years could achieve. Japan’s problems are intractable, and it may lie beyond the ability of any one leader to overcome them, even one so well-loved as Koizumi.

Tobias Harris runs the Observing Japan political blog

8. Shinzo Abe (2006-07)

The son of a blue-blooded political family — grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was prime minister and father Shintaro Abe was a prominent LDP leader — Shinzo Abe ascended to the prime ministership at age 52 in September 2006, eager to fulfill the grand, if vague, ambitions outlined in his best-selling book “Toward a Beautiful Nation.” His yearlong reign, however, was plagued by controversy and scandal.

When Abe denied that the so-called comfort women who serviced Japanese soldiers in wartime brothels were coerced, he was blasted by the foreign media, including The New York Times in an editorial.

Abe found himself in more serious trouble, however, when an Asahi Shimbun story accused him and fellow LDP politician Shoichi Nakagawa of trying to censor a 2001 NHK program on the comfort women issue. Abe labeled the story a “fabrication,” but in October 2006 his communications minister called on NHK’s overseas radio service to focus more on the plight of Japan’s abductees in North Korea, another pet Abe issue. This blatant attempt by Abe’s administration to steer media coverage was widely criticized as an assault on press freedom.

What truly sank Abe, however, was a spate of scandals. Accused of claiming grotesquely high utility expenses for his office — ¥5 million for 2005 alone — agricultural minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka committed suicide in May 2007. Matsuoka’s replacement, Norihiko Akagi, quit two months later after being discovered claiming lavish expenses for a nonexistent office. His successor, Takehiko Endo, lasted only eight days before being downed by a similar money scandal. As if that weren’t enough, Abe’s defense minister, Fumio Kyuma, stepped down in July 2007 after making remarks excusing the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The LDP’s massive losses in the July 2007 Upper House election, as well as the Abe administration’s plummeting approval ratings, sealed Abe’s fate: He announced his resignation in September.

Adding to his woes, Abe was reportedly incapacitated by chronic diarrhea that drove him to the toilet 30 times a day. When he left office he had little to show for his stewardship beyond screaming weekly magazine headlines and an epic case of the runs.

Japan Times film critic Mark Schilling has been a disgruntled observer of the Japanese political scene for 35 years

9. Taro Aso (2008-09)

Mere words on paper hardly do justice to the sheer awfulness of Japan’s 92nd prime minister but we surely must try, if only to protect future generations from his florid historical window dressing.

As president of family firm Aso Cement, Taro Aso oversaw a company history book that said Japan was tricked into attacking Pearl Harbor, and neglected to mention the firm’s use of wartime slave labor — for which it never paid a penny in compensation. When questioned on this before becoming prime minister, Aso said he was “4 or 5″ when the war ended and couldn’t be held responsible. But of course he was responsible for what came out of his mouth — or should have been.

Routinely dubbed “gaffes,” Aso’s bon mots were surely expressions of his true beliefs, which showed shocking contempt for historical fact. So Taiwanese should have been “grateful” for the compulsory education provided them by Imperial Japan, Korean and Chinese were “not coerced” into providing sex to Imperial soldiers, and the Emperor should visit Yasukuni to bestow celestial blessings on the whole sordid enterprise.

Asians weren’t the only people to feel the scorch from Aso’s verbal carpet bombs. In a country with the world’s highest percentage of pensioners, he frequently insulted the elderly, and once moaned about stumping up for health care for senior citizens. “Why should I pay tax for people who just sit around and do nothing but eat and lounge about drinking,” he mused.

He could afford it better than most. One of Japan’s richest politicians, records published in one magazine showed he ran up a food and drink bill of over ¥40 million between 2005 and 2007.

Astonishingly, he was elected to help pull the LDP out of its death dive because of his perceived popularity with the public. The very fact that the manga-loving dunce became leader at all was a sign of his country’s terrible dearth of political talent.

David McNeill writes for The Independent and other publications around the world

10. Yukio Hatoyama (2009-10)

He is the politician once famously described as a melting Mr. Whippy ice cream. His nickname is “the alien,” he has a wacky sun-munching wife and a penchant for bad shirts.

So it is perhaps little surprise that Yukio Hatoyama’s tenure as PM was not only the briefest in recent years (a blink-and-you-miss-it 265 days), but also the most disappointing.

It was on a famously assured wave of optimism that Hatoyama was swept to power in a landslide victory in September 2009, bringing to an end over half a century of near-constant LDP dominance.

His success was fueled by heady promises of change: more efficient governance, the reduction of bureaucratic power, welfare state reforms and — perhaps most seductively — a foreign policy stance distanced from the United States.

This final promise proved to be his nemesis — in particular, his controversial pledge to remove the U.S. military’s Futenma base from Okinawa.

It was Hatoyama’s protracted and indecisive wavering over this issue — before eventually being forced to backtrack — that caused his popularity to plummet, resulting in his departure in June 2010.

Despite hailing from a powerful political dynasty, Hatoyama never quite fit the conventional Japanese leader mould, something which at first appeared to be a refreshing advantage.

He possessed a softer, more academic approach than is customary among Japanese politicians (hence the ice cream compliment, courtesy of tough-talking former PM Yasuhiro Nakasone).

Hatoyama even looked different. His wardrobe contained headline-grabbing primary colors — a revolutionary concept in a grey political world. And then there was his charming wife, Miyuki, whose eccentricities outshone even his shirt collection (yes, she is the one who flew to Venus and met Tom Cruise in a former life).

But despite the glimmer of hope he briefly instilled in the nation, Hatoyama ultimately disappointed in a surprisingly brief period of time — and the “changes” Japan was (and still is) seeking remained frustratingly elusive.

Danielle Demetriou writes from Tokyo for the U.K. Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Monocle and The National, among others

The last word: Death of a PM

Just a minute here. Why devote space to listing only “useless” prime ministers, when public indifference toward them borders on the callous? To prove my point, during my lifetime one political leader in Japan and the U.S. has died while holding office (albeit under very different circumstances). In terms of the respective publics’ reaction, the differences were enormous.

On the morning of June 12, 1980, I was in the passenger seat of a Nissan Gloria on the Shuto Expressway at the moment NHK’s announcer broke in to announce the sudden death of Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, from a heart attack, at age 70.

Arriving at my office in Ueno half an hour later, I scrutinized my Japanese coworkers for outward signs of emotion. Nobody mentioned a thing. Over the next several days my few attempts to raise the matter with friends, neighbors and acquaintances got nowhere. No one in my circle showed the slightest inclination to rue the PM’s passing.

Aside from succinct coverage on TV and in the newspapers, in fact, it was almost as if Masayoshi Ohira had never existed.

What a striking contrast that was from what I’d witnessed as a teenager in November 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas! Even 48 years later I still have vivid memories of the week-long national outpouring of grief set off by the slaying of America’s charismatic young president.

Having thus been accorded an opportunity to observe the public’s reaction to the death of a political leader in Japan, I came away disheartened by the tone of general indifference. In addition to prime minister, Ohira had also served his party and his country well as foreign minister, and I felt he deserved better.

Mark Schreiber is a regular on the Japan Times media and book review pages

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