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What makes a leader a leader?

Why would anyone want to be a leader? The burdens of office seem vastly out of proportion to the perks. U.S. President Joe Biden comes to mind — or former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Biden was 78 when he took office; Suga, 71. Both men had had long and respectable, if not brilliant, careers. They could have slipped with quiet dignity into honorable retirement, free at last to bask in the joys of private life.

Why not? They’d earned it, it was theirs. Why choose instead, at their ages, the awesome responsibilities that those of us who are not leaders by temperament, inclination or ability quail at the very thought of?

Bungei Shunju magazine this month ponders leadership in times of crisis. What qualities does it demand? Who measures up, who doesn’t? The discussion takes the form of a conversation between four men: JR Tokai Chairman Emeritus Yoshiyuki Kasai, Industrial Growth Platform Inc. Group Chairman Kazuhiko Toyama, Yomiuri Shimbun Group Chairman Shoichi Oikawa and Keio University law professor Morihide Katayama.

The consensus: Japan does not breed leaders. Suga’s fumbling response to the COVID-19 pandemic strikes all four participants, but he inherited rather than created the vacuum at the top, rooted in what Katayama calls Japan’s “zero risk myth.” The example he cites — stark example as well of the terrifying choices even peacetime leaders face — is the September 1977 hijack of a Japan Airlines flight by five armed Japanese Red Army terrorists.

The Paris-to-Tokyo flight ended up in Dhaka, Bangladesh. With 156 passengers and crew as hostages, the hijackers demanded of the Japanese government $6 million and the release of nine imprisoned Red Army members.

The day before had been a day like any other for Japan and its then-prime minister, Takeo Fukuda. A minute before a thing happens, nothing is happening, all is calm. Suddenly all hell breaks loose, and the leader faces a ghastly choice. Yield to terrorism and save the hostages? Or stand up to terrorism and risk sacrificing the hostages?

“The life of a single person is weightier than the Earth,” said Fukuda. He yielded.

Two weeks later, perhaps inspired by the Red Army triumph, four armed terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked a German Lufthansa flight bound for Frankfurt from Palma de Mallorca, Spain. The plane was diverted to Mogadishu, Somalia. German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt ordered it stormed. The hostages were freed, the terrorists killed.

What shall we say — that Schmidt was a leader and Fukuda not? Supposing hostages had been killed or the plane blown up — would we then say Schmidt was a fool who should have learned from Fukuda?

The COVID-19 crisis presents leaders with a dilemma scarcely less grim: Strangle the virus and the economy with it, or go easy on the virus and give the economy room to breathe? As Toyama notes, people’s lives depend on the economy too. Japan’s rising suicide rate as the economy slowed proves as much.

What must a crisis leader do, first and foremost? Articulate a vision. “We are at war,” declared French President Emmanuel Macron in March 2020. “Act like you have COVID-19,” said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern around the same time. “Make no mistake, this will get worse before it gets better.”

Japan waited in vain for similar straight talk from its leader, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe in the early stages of the pandemic said little and expressed nothing. “Where is the leadership?” demanded American political scientist Gerald Curtis, a recognized expert on Japan, in a February 2020 interview with the Reuters news service. “Even now, (with the virus spreading), he’s not out there, not talking to the public and mobilizing people.” His approval ratings sank.

Suga, Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, took over as prime minister in September 2020. The vacuum deepened. The dilemma was not faced, the choice not made. Bland assurances took the place of decisions. What he should have said, according to Katayama, was something like this: “The Olympic Games must be held: Japan has committed itself. To cancel would mean forfeiting the trust of the world. We will try to keep infection down as much as possible — but inevitably it will rise; we must be prepared.”

He promised instead the impossible — zero risk. The Games would go forward, spectators would be admitted, the virus would not circulate. Why wouldn’t it? “Trust me,” said Suga in effect.

Trust must be earned. It was not. Approval rates sank further. He backtracked on the spectators — they would not be admitted after all. Mistrust deepened. He declined to contest the Liberal Democratic Party leadership race in September — in effect resigning in the middle of a crisis; in effect admitting failure.

Of the four participants in the Bungei Shunju round table, Kasai showed Suga the most sympathy. First, he said, Japan’s response to the pandemic was by no means an unqualified failure. It was in fact a qualified success. Without lockdowns, without intolerable restrictions on people’s freedom of movement, Japan kept its death rate significantly lower than many other developed democracies were able to do. The appeal to exercise “self-restraint” was heeded. Maybe the reason Japan seems leaderless is that its people require less leadership.

Oikawa invokes Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill. In June 1940, with Nazi Germany at its peak and the democracies at their nadir, Churchill thundered in the British parliament: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Now that, Oikawa seems to be saying, is leadership!

Yes, smiles Katayama, “but rousing leadership in normal times is merely comic.”

That raises a question: Are these normal times?

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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