“Song of Chu all around” (si-mian-Chu-ge) is an old Chinese saying that means “being besieged or deserted on all sides.”

The story has it that the King of Chu holed up in a castle of Gaixai in the final round of the war with the Han. One night, in the midst of a difficult situation, he woke up and went to the window only to discover that all he was able to hear was a folk song of his country, Chu, which meant that all his countrymen outside the castle had joined the enemy camp.

The saying is used nowadays when a person has lost all his supporters and has been surrounded only by critics or enemies. It appears that the Japanese prime minister might have heard the “song of Chu all around.” Many members of his party showed signs of revolt, while leaders of the business community, as well as the opposition parties, called for his resignation. Yet, Naoto Kan showed a remarkable resistance and stayed on as if he had not heard the song.

Foreign observers in particular wonder how he has remained in power as long as he has amid such criticism and the wave of calls for his resignation. Some may compare Japan with political scenes in other countries where the prime minister or president resists the political tide.

Comparisons of other leaders with Mr. Kan, in many cases, don’t apply because their resignations were related to personal scandals involving moral decay or corruption. There have been no particularly explosive scandals involving Mr. Kan during his time as prime minister.

One might point out that Mr. Kan’s receipt of political contributions from a “foreign” source should have become a source of controversy, but it blew over.

The absence of scandals in Mr. Kan’s personal life made foreign observers wonder all the more why the prime minister became so unpopular.

That remains the basic question: Why has Mr. Kan been so unpopular?

The answer is that his popularity foundered among business leaders, politicians and bureaucrats — the “establishments.”

He fought against Tokyo Electric Power Co., quarreling with the top echelons of the ministry that oversees nuclear energy policy and, in some cases, neglecting or opposing the opinions of the leaders of his own party. Mr. Kan was very astute in creating the image of a political leader who was fighting against political and economic “establishments.” He was always on the side of “citizens.”

Since the Koizumi period, the citizens of Japan have been building a social tide of mistrust against business, government and political parties, and it was this tide that overturned decades of rule by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party and realized the government of the Democratic Party of Japan. This tide persists in Japanese society. Perhaps the tide was reinforced because of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and the initial handling of the crisis by Tepco and the regulatory agencies.

A “tsunami” of mistrust has penetrated the center of the power structure in Japanese politics. Ironically, many politicians have tried to ride this wave to score popularity points.

By destroying the close links between politics and bureaucratic management, and between big business associations and the government, this process has increased the sense of detachment and mistrust among business leaders, bureaucrats and even some sensible politicians toward the very functioning of the political system and its leadership.

Paradoxically, however, such mistrust and grumbling by business leaders and government officials have increased the sense of mistrust toward them among ordinary people. This vicious circle has been cleverly used by some politicians for strengthening their political position of an anti-establishment stance.

The only possible way of ending this vicious circle of mistrust in Japanese society is a wave of criticism from abroad against Japanese management of international affairs. However, with the U.S. military base issue on Okinawa practically sealed for now and once strained Japan-China relations showing signs of calm stability, such an international wave of criticism is unlikely.

The worldwide applause for the courageous attitude of the victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and even the victory of the Japanese women’s soccer team, may have helped to mitigate, at least on the surface, actual or potential international disenchantment with Japan’s political leadership.

In short, the attitude toward Mr. Kan was not a personal phenomenon but rather a socio-political symptom of contemporary Japanese society.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He has served as Japanese ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Vietnam (1994-95), South Korea (1997-99) and France (1999-2002).

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.