[Viewpoint] Japan’s ‘hollow core’ power structure

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[Viewpoint] Japan’s ‘hollow core’ power structure

June 7 marked the 365th day that Naoto Kan served as the Japanese Prime Minister. But he doesn’t seem to have much time left. A few days ago he barely avoided a no-confidence vote at the Japanese Diet. He did so only after promising to resign soon. Both the ruling and opposition parties are pressuring him to step down. Japanese newspapers are filling space with post-Kan stories every day.

Kan is going to be yet another short-lived Japanese prime minister. Since Junichiro Koizumi served for five years and five months, the prime minister of Japan has been filled by a different person almost every year.

Those urging Kan’s departure have a clear argument: Kan lacks the ability to control crises and state management. They cite Kan’s tepid responses to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami as well as the Fukushima nuclear plant accident.

But questions remain. Would another prime minister have been able to handle the crisis better? Would the Liberal Democratic Party have been quicker to respond? Would changing the prime minister improve the situation?

Looking at Japanese politics today, observers can’t answer an emphatic “Yes” for any of these questions. Few politicians would have acted any differently from Naoto Kan.

Foreigners often ask why Japan does not have a strong leader.

The theory of Japan’s “hollow center” explains the absence of a powerful leader. Renowned psychologist and former minister of culture Hayao Kawaii coined the term. He explains an absence of leadership as a cultural element. Even legends and myths in Japan lack an omnipotent, absolute God. Even the god of heaven and the god of the underworld do not have absolute power. Japanese mythology lacks a central leader like Zeus in Greek mythology. Rather, many gods of different abilities maintain a balance - or harmony - with one another and defend their own areas of specialties.

Kawaii explains that the lack of an absolute leader became the foundation of the country’s leadership structure in politics and business. It developed into a system where the core of power is left as a vacuum and a group of leaders share that power by emphasizing balance and harmony.

The Meiji Constitution of 1889 reflects the hollow core structure in the political system. The prime minister was placed on the same level with other Cabinet members and he did not have the power to dismiss other ministers. Decisions were made by unanimous agreements of Cabinet members, so the prime minister was expected to play the role of bringing opinions together.

It is hard to understand that a country that started a war of aggression operated under such a system but it somehow worked for 50 years through the end of World War II. The presence of the Japanese emperor alone does not explain the unique power structure.

Of course, the current constitution is different. Systematically, the hollow core structure is no longer valid. The prime minister is the leader of the Cabinet, with the power to appoint and dismiss ministers and even dissolve the Diet. As the head of government, the prime minister is equivalent to the president.

However, in reality the hollow core structure is still in place. The prime minister’s power is divided into different factions, so his power is not concentrated at the center. The prime minister of Japan often consults the key faction leaders of the party on major issues and makes a final decision according to an agreement.

In the process, back room manipulation is common in Japan. Columbia University professor and Japan expert Gerald Curtis calls this an “unofficial mediation mechanism.” Having a high approval rating does not mean you can sway consensus. Former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa boasted an over 80 percent approval rating when he came to office but he too failed to display leadership.

Lately, it has been even harder to find a strong leader willing to stand at the center of power and hold authority and accountability. It is not a problem of any particular short-lived prime minister. The political culture of Japan produced a series of prime ministers unfit for leadership, and it is the intrinsic limitation of Japanese politics.

Japanese intellectuals are aware of the problem but they don’t have a clear solution. Changes would not come without revolutionary awakening of ideas and concepts. It is like switching to a completely new operating system.

But without a new operating system, anyone can be made prime minister and the situation will remain unchanged. Nevertheless, Japan might be better with its hollow core than with an extreme rightist leader with strong power.

*The writer is a senior business writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Nahm Yoon-ho
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