A new prime minister of Japan will take office later this month, following the election of a new Liberal Democratic Party president next Tuesday. It does not matter that Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has not yet publicly announced his resignation. His exit has been a foregone conclusion for some time.
The Mori administration governed the nation during a brief but critical period in history, beginning in April 2000. But Mr. Mori’s failure to present a credible blueprint for the future and revive an ailing economy disillusioned the people. This, coupled with a series of gaffes and scandals, has made him the most unpopular prime minister since the end of World War II.
Mr. Mori took office a year ago after his predecessor, Mr. Keizo Obuchi, suffered a stroke. But the clandestine manner in which he was chosen to succeed Mr. Obuchi — the choice was made in backroom talks by a handful of LDP strongmen — raised questions about the legitimacy of his Cabinet, although he was later formally elected prime minister by the Diet. The verbal blunders he committed, such as a remark describing Japan as a “nations of gods with the Emperor at the center,” cast further doubt over his fitness to lead the nation.
The LDP lost its majority in last June’s general election, but kept power with the support of New Komeito and the New Conservative Party. The tripartite coalition, which enjoys an absolute majority in the influential Lower House, created a semblance of political stability. But its heavy-handed parliamentary tactics further alienated the public. The much-touted central government shakeup, designed to take away the policymaking initiative from the bureaucracy, has proved a dud, further accentuating Mr. Mori’s failure of leadership.
In the meantime, his administration was rocked by a series of bribery scandals involving members of his own party. In the so-called KSD affair, a number of legislators allegedly received cash from that small-business mutual-aid foundation. The scandals once again brought to the fore the collusive ties that have long bound politicians, bureaucrats and business. A massive fraud case involving a Foreign Ministry bureaucrat also exposed corruption in government.
The embattled Mori drove himself further into a corner with his slow response to the collision of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine with a Japanese fisheries training vessel off Hawaii in February. With his popularity already at a record-low single-digit level, his decision to continue playing golf after being informed of the incident — in which the training vessel sank with nine people on board — angered the public and made his resignation only a matter of time.
It is in the realm of policy, however, that Mr. Mori failed most conspicuously. He took the helm at a difficult time for the nation, yet he demonstrated little leadership in shaping policy, leaving almost everything to party executives. He did talk of the “rebirth of Japan,” but his attempt at economic recovery — which relied heavily on public spending — fell through. Stock prices plunged, and the economy slipped back into recession. The Mori administration also failed to produce reform blueprints in other key areas, such as the deficit-ridden government budget and the social-security system.
Mr. Mori took a more active role in diplomacy, particularly in trying to settle the territorial dispute with Russia and to normalize relations with North Korea. Aside from a desire to improve ties with those two nations, he may have wanted to make up for his failures at home by scoring diplomatic gains. However, he achieved nothing substantial on either front.
Earlier, Tokyo and Moscow had pledged to sign a peace treaty by the end of 2000 by resolving the territorial issue. That commitment never materialized. Mr. Mori met Russian President Vladimir Putin in March in a bid to break the deadlock, but they effectively agreed to disagree. Relations with North Korea remain chilly, with the two sides divided over the interpretation of Japan’s colonization of Korea. As things stand, it is unclear when normalization talks will resume.
Mr. Mori’s efforts to break the ice vis-a-vis Russia and North Korea are to be appreciated. But his conduct of diplomacy showed a lack of strategic thinking. In fairness to him, however, it must be said that these problems with Russia and North Korea are hard nuts to crack. None of his predecessors succeeded in dealing with these problems, either.
With the LDP leadership contest scheduled for April 24, a review of Mr. Mori’s past year in office serves as a reminder of what the next administration should and should not do. The most important thing is that it must be headed by someone capable of steering the nation through this difficult transition period — and who can imbue the people with confidence.
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