Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda took office in September, becoming Japan’s sixth prime minister in five years. One thing that people will pay attention to is whether he can stay in power for more than 12 months — something four out his five immediate predecessors failed to do.
Whether he succeeds depends in part on whether he can win the next presidential election of his Democratic Party of Japan, set for the fall of 2012, and whether he can lead the ruling party to victory in a general election that may take place this year. Since Noda is already struggling with falling approval ratings, these are by no means certain, and Japan may yet see a seventh prime minister in six years.
Short-lived administrations are not a recent phenomenon, said political analyst and writer Ushio Shiota. In fact, the average term of Japan’s past 62 prime ministers is just two years.
Experts caution, however, that frequent changes in prime ministers are a major reason for Japan’s prolonged economic stagnation and the decline in its international influence.
Shiota and many other political analysts attribute short-lived leadership in Japan to the country’s divided Diet, in which the opposition bloc holds sway in the House of Councilors, the upper chamber, and can obstruct the passage of legislation by the ruling bloc.
In fact, a change of prime minister has become an annual event ever since the DPJ won the largest number of seats in the Upper House in the July 2007 election. Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party resigned two months later amid a stalemate in the Diet over a bill to extend Japan’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S.-led operations in and around Afghanistan.
Abe’s charismatic predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, stayed in office for five years and five months — the third longest term as prime minister in the post-World War II period.
But Abe and his two successors — Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso — all from the LDP, were unable to stay in power for even a year.
A short-lived government continued after the DPJ seized power in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber, as well in 2009, ending half a century of almost uninterrupted rule by the LDP.
Yukio Hatoyama stepped down about nine months after taking office, though Naoto Kan managed to hang on for about 14 months.
“Opposition parties have used the divided Diet only to drive the administration into a corner,” said Jun Iio, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
“I don’t see any point in our country having a bicameral system at the moment,” he added, saying that the power of the Upper House must be diminished.
Specifically, Iio proposes that the number of seats required for the Lower House to override an Upper House decision, currently set at a two-thirds vote or more, should be reduced to a majority. He also proposes that the Diet enact budget-related bills once they have been approved by the Lower House.
Under the Constitution, a budget or treaty, if passed by the Lower House, can clear the Diet even if the Upper House votes it down or refuses to act on it within 30 days, as the lower chamber’s decision prevails. In the case of other bills, however, the two-thirds rule applies.
Iio also said that a prime minister should continue to stay on until his or her term as a Diet member expires and that the ruling party should not hold its leadership election until the term ends.
Since the Constitution has no provision for the prime minister’s term, a Diet member, logically, can continue to serve as prime minister as long as he or she is appointed prime minister by the Diet.
But Japan’s two major parties, the DPJ and the LDP, elect their president every two and three years, respectively. This means that the prime minister’s job is affected each time a presidential election for the party controlling the Lower House is held.
Some analysts say that Japan holds too many national elections in a short time, preventing the prime minister from serving for an extended period.
In Japan, Lower House members have four-year terms, but the prime minister can dissolve the chamber for a snap election before the terms expire. Upper House members have six-year terms, with elections held every three years for half the 242 seats. Based on the system, Japan has had three national elections in four years since 2007.
Other analysts point out that the advent of the Internet age has changed voters’ perceptions of politics.
Psychiatrist Rika Kayama said that the spread of various kinds of information reported by the media have made people “sensitive to even minor mistakes by politicians” and that as a result voters “take extreme actions.”
Japanese voters have also come to want quick results from politics, and lawmakers could easily disappoint voters if they fail to live up to expectations, Kayama said.
Iio said that voters’ reactions to a certain policy are directly reflected in public opinion polls, and a decline in popularity ratings quickly undermines the prime minister and his administration.
Shusei Tanaka, a former director general of the now-defunct Economic Planning Agency, said that prime ministers do not survive because of the problems in their capability as politicians. He is calling for a system that brings people from diverse backgrounds into politics.
“If the quality of politicians improves, we can expect a more competent prime minister,” said Tanaka, a former Lower House member who served as special adviser to Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa in the early 1990s.
A capable prime minister, Shiota said, is someone who can grasp people’s needs and the reality of Japan and the world, and has the guts to implement necessary policies without flip-flopping.
“It’s important to respond to the needs of the public, but a true leader doesn’t compromise,” he said.
Izuru Makihara, a professor at Tohoku University’s Graduate School of Law, has a different view.
“Politicians are dispensable. If one doesn’t work out, we just have to get another one,” he said. “That’s proof we have a healthy democracy.”
Among all Japanese prime ministers since the end of World War II, Eisaku Sato is the longest-serving leader, spending 2,798 days in office from 1964 through 1972. The prime minister who served the shortest term was Prince Naruhiko Higashikuni, who filled the position for just 54 days after World War II ended in August 1945.