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Tossing our leaders to the lions

by Michael Hoffman

In Tokugawa days (1603-1867), criticizing the government was a capital offense. Rulers, not only in Japan but the world over, expected to be — and generally were — not only obeyed but revered, sometimes as gods, sometimes as beings only slightly less exalted. “God,” wrote the French bishop and political theorist Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704), “establishes kings as his ministers, and reigns through them over the people.”

Rulers were on the brink — Bossuet could hardly have foreseen it — of a dreadful thrashing, which started with the American and French Revolutions and continues to this day. Opinion polls and election returns make the point time after time — we hate, despise, distrust and are disgusted by the people we elect and call, for want of a better word, our leaders.

Where in the developed or emerging democracies stands a leader toward whom the dominant feeling is not discontent, disillusion, disparagement or outright contempt? Two places come to mind: In Brazil outgoing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a remarkably successful crusader against poverty; and in Chile, President Sebastian Pin~era, basking (for now) in the glow of the spectacular rescue of 33 trapped miners.

There may be others; if so the esteem they inspire pales beside the disdain heaped on heads of front-ranked states, such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy (latest approval rating: 26 percent), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (41 percent and sinking) and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan (32.7 percent, down 15 percent in one month).

Our political enthusiasms, fleeting and sporadic but ardent when kindled, are reserved mostly for outsiders. If only they could govern from the outside; then they might stand a chance. As it is, no sooner have they sullied their hands with the sordid muck of “political reality” than we toss them to the winds, or the lions — modern equivalent, maybe, to the prehistoric ceremonial sacrifice of tribal kings to the spirits.

If it could happen with so little ado to U.S. President Barack Obama, hailed two short years ago as the most compelling world-class statesman of our time, how could it not happen to the hapless Democratic Party of Japan, like Obama stunningly triumphant in 2009, fighting for its political life today?

Japan’s weekly magazines sang in chorus last week, their headlines stark and clear: “We were idiots to choose Kan!” (Weekly Playboy). “Signs of the end of the DPJ, a party that can’t do anything or decide anything” (Shukan Gendai). “Kan’s diplomacy is ruining Japan” (Shukan Asahi).

Is it really only 15 months since the DPJ won its historic landslide? The bloom was soon off the rose. By April, then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was scoring approval ratings around 20 percent, comparable to those of the disgraced Liberal Democratic Party at the sclerotic end of its nearly unbroken (though massively unpopular) 54-year reign. Hatoyama resigned and Kan took over. The brief surge of optimism that followed is long forgotten.

DPJ blundering, from the Futenma crisis under Hatoyama to the territorial challenges Kan now faces from China and Russia, has been corrosive to the hopes the party initially inspired. Would it have lasted otherwise?

Brazil’s Lula da Silva proves that a leader’s popularity can be enduring. The fact that he has no peers in that regard suggests it’s highly unlikely to be.

Maybe the problem is that we see our leaders too close up. The microphones and cameras are forever trained on them; we hear their every word, see their every facial expression, catch their every gesture; we can almost smell them. That’s the intimacy democracy demands and democratic leaders perforce accord.

It’s fatal to respect, barring one quality that can stand up to it: the quality that goes by that vague and ill-defined name “charisma.” Japanese politicians are not notable for it. Two contemporary Japanese political mold-breakers have possessed it, with results that might make us grateful for its rarity.

They are former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and current Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. They exemplify the danger that a charismatic leader can, without sacrificing popularity or losing votes, drive the nation where it doesn’t want to go. Such was the case with Koizumi, who force-fed Japan on American-style capitalism and incidentally created the kakusa shakai — a society with a wide gap between rich and poor, one of whose symptoms is a work force of which one-third now works on a part-time basis. Few voted for that, though 84 percent supported Koizumi in his heyday.

And Ishihara: In an interview he gave Sapio magazine last month, he said, “The Japanese people have for 65 years since the war been infected with a ‘peace poison’ ” that has destroyed, to the nation’s detriment, the native spirit of “self-sacrifice.”

There is no evidence the Japanese people as a whole share these views. They seem to have no objection to peace, and display no yearning to sacrifice themselves. And yet Ishihara, now serving a third term as governor, has been respected as few politicians in the democratic world today are.