Dear Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda,
The German architect Walter Gropius said, “Specialists are people who always make the same mistakes.” He could have been talking about the majority of postwar Japanese prime ministers.
In your lifetime, 25 prime ministers have governed Japan, or tried to. You are the 26th.
President John F. Kennedy wrote usefully about governance in his memoir “Profiles in Courage.” He noted the difference between politicking and governing, a difference U.S. President Barack Obama has come to understand over the past three years, and he wrote of three pressures which “discourage acts of political courage.”
The first pressure comes from one’s colleagues. Kennedy wrote: “We (senators) prefer praise to abuse, popularity to contempt . . . we (senators) are anxious to get along with our fellow legislators, our fellow members of the club, to abide by clubhouse rules and patterns. . . . ‘The way to get along,’ I was told when I entered Congress, ‘is to go along’.’ “
The second pressure, Kennedy wrote, is the desire to be re-elected: “Not all Senators would agree — but few would deny that the desire to be re-elected exercises a strong brake on independent courage.”
The third pressure Kennedy identified comes from one’s constituents, including interest groups and economic lobbies. “If we tell our constituents frankly that we can do nothing, they feel we are unsympathetic or inadequate,” he wrote. “If we try and fail — usually meeting a counteraction from other Senators representing other interests — they say we are like all the rest of the politicians.”
You know all this, of course. You have seen nearly every one of your 25 predecessors trudge glumly into history, at best unappreciated by the citizenry, at worst ridiculed or vilified.
What, then, to do? Nearly everyone agrees you’ve just taken on what is nearly certain to be a thankless job. The good news is that expectations of your administration are so low you have a chance to impress.
What I would do if I were you is try to prioritize the people you purport to govern. Japanese leaders have long bent more to President Kennedy’s first two pressures than to the last, the expectations of the people, and given their record of success, I suggest you could do worse than trying a different path.
The people appreciated the efforts of Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano during the first weeks of the Fukushima nuclear crisis because he appeared to be making an effort to keep us informed. We want that. We want to be informed about the issues that concern us. We want to believe that our views are being taken into account, that our concerns are being addressed.
I suggest you create a clear road map to the objectives (economic, trade, social welfare, foreign policy, etc.) your administration will pursue, and that you share that map with the people. Establish benchmarks for success, and update us regularly on your progress. A common complaint about your predecessors has been that they have apparently done nothing. You have a chance to tell us what you’re doing on behalf of the people.
You also have a chance to engage in dialogue with the people, rather than the usual monologue. How many of your predecessors have visited even half of Japan’s prefectures during their tenures?
I suggest you organize a series of town hall meetings, in Tokyo and Toyama, in Kesennuma and Kochi, in Nagoya and — yes — in Naha. Start with a nationally televised speech outlining your plans and your expectations not only of yourself and your Cabinet, but also of opposition politicians, government agencies and the Japanese people themselves. Remind the people it’s ganbarō, not ganbarimasu.
Then get out there on the road, talk to people, listen to people, show people you care. You’ll have to demonstrate your caring by eventually acting on people’s behalf, of course, by getting stuff done, but no one expects any leader to get everything done. Just some stuff. Good stuff. Stuff that makes people feel their government is their government, working with their best interests at heart.
Finally, I suggest you be ambitious in your goal-setting. Again you could do worse than to look to President Kennedy for inspiration. On May 25, 1961, Kennedy announced his intention to see an American astronaut on the moon (and safely returned to Earth) by the end of the decade. The next year, he said: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
You have inherited a nation in crisis, and much work needs to be done. The decisions you make during your tenure can shape the country for decades to come. What’s needed is vision, and the will to transform those visions into action. It won’t be easy.
President Kennedy offers a bit of final advice to the fledgling governor or head of state. He wrote: “Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before. For our everyday life is becoming so saturated with the tremendous power of mass communications that any unpopular or unorthodox course arouses a storm of protests. . . . Our political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment.”
I have quoted extensively here from Kennedy’s introduction to “Profiles in Courage.” The remainder of the book consists of profiles of leaders who demonstrated courage, who resisted pressure, who took “the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for our survival”.
Good luck to you.
ROBERTO DE VIDO
Roberto De Vido is a founder of Near Futures, which provides community development assessment and solutions services to communities and businesses in Japan. He can be reached at email@example.com. Send submissions of between 500 and 700 words to firstname.lastname@example.org