[Viewpoint] A serious deficit of political leadership

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[Viewpoint] A serious deficit of political leadership

Japanese politics always remind me of what a former deputy minister said in 1994: “What’s really on the minds of the officials may be the belief that popular democracy is a mistake.” The Liberal Democratic Party’s 55-year rule had just ended, and a coalition excluding it had taken over the government. The remark dramatically summed up the arrogance, elitism and sense of crisis felt by powerful bureaucrats, who had been leading Japan with the LDP since the end of World War II. Some 18 years have passed since the comment was made, but Japan’s elite bureaucrats may share similar beliefs. Since former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stepped down, Japan has had six short-lived prime ministers.

Japan is suffering a serious deficit of stable political leadership. As the prime minister’s authority is weaker than it would be for the chief executive under the presidential system, the average term of the nation’s leaders in the last six years has been about 12 months. Cabinet members serve even shorter terms, with ministers serving under Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan averaging terms of 8.7 months.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda became the 19th Japanese leader to attend the Group of Eight summit last month when it convened for the 38th time. Angela Merkel was the fourth German chancellor to attend, and François Hollande the fifth French leader. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama was the seventh U.S. president to join the summit’s ranks.

The presence of the Japanese prime minister is diminishing at home and abroad. Japan’s “lost two decades” may be the record of drifting politics. While the Japanese prime minister gets to stay in office for a year, Korea’s president serves a single term of five years, and the Chinese premier is allowed two five-year terms. The length of the leadership term may reflect the situation of the three countries. In an era where social networking services sway public opinion, thus putting the authority under real-time surveillance, governments need to stay in power for a reasonable length of time to prevent the state from declining.

Where does Japan’s lethargy come from? Yoshibumi Wakamiya, editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun, pointed out the trap of the bicameral legislature when he visited Seoul about 10 days ago. Japan’s House of Councilors, its upper house, has become increasingly powerful, and the opposition holds the majority. The House of Representatives votes on the appointment of the prime minister and the budget, but bills must be passed by both houses. As such, the decision-making process is highly vulnerable to being hijacked and delayed.

The prime minister is judged by the elections of the House of Councilors and the House of Representatives as well as the party leadership primary. There are too many obstacles for a prime minister to stay in power for long. Wakamiya, in particular, blamed the system for his short-lived leadership.

However, Columbia University Prof. Gerald Curtis, an expert in Japanese politics, found the roots of Japan’s political paralysis in the “inability of leaders to define national goals and in the failure of both the DPJ [Democratic Party of Japan] and the LDP to recruit enough qualified politicians” in the May 29 issue of the Wall Street Journal.

Focusing on the latter view may shed some light on proceedings. In Japanese politics, grand causes have disappeared. Almost half a century ago, then-Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda pledged to double the national income, while, in the 1970s, Kakuei Tanaka advocated “remodeling the Japanese Archipelago” when he was in power. Yasuhiro Nakasone, who held the post from 1982 to 1987, wrapped up the group of post-World War II political leaders.

Their collective spirit symbolized the growth and confidence of Japan in those heady decades, reflected in the inspirational writings of popular essayist Ryotaro Shiba. From 1986, he contributed a serialized essay to Bungei Shunju, a Japanese literary magazine, for 10 years until his death. His famous collection of essays, “The Shape of This Nation,” even led politicians to come to him with their own theories about the nation.

Former Democratic Party Chairman Ichiro Ozawa called for a “normal nation” in 1993, and Masayoshi Takemura, president of New Party Sakigake, described Japan as “small but brightly shining country” in 1994. Ozawa suggested adapting a small electoral district system while Takemura supported an eight-province union not to mention environmentalism.

Their differences pitted neoconservatism and great-power chauvinism against liberalism and the small state doctrine.

As Japan is now sending its self-defense forces abroad and the Democratic Party has seized power, Ozawa’s vision has been realized, and localization is accelerating. “The Shape of This Nation” is frequently quoted by Nakasone in his writings and lectures.

Former prime ministers Ryutaro Hashimoto and Keizo Obuchi also managed to establish their own national visions, but their plans had little impact.
The absence of a national plan and vision does not set politics adrift from the needs of the time, but if political engineering and backward conventions fill the void, the country will clearly run into trouble.

Japanese politics seem to be bogged down in treacherous terrain, and Korea is not faring much better. In an age of chaos and division, politicians need to vocalize their dreams and visions and issue challenges accordingly. In an era of low growth and retrenchment, they should have the courage to call for sharing the burden rather than simply sharing growth.

This is the prevailing duty and responsibility of our politicians, and December’s presidential election will be a perfect opportunity for them to define the shape of the nation and rediscover the true meaning of politics.

*The author is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Young-hwan
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