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Japan’s PM holds on by promising to go

The northeast of Japan remains a disaster zone, with 24,000 people dead or missing and more than 100,000 others still in temporary shelters three months after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the coast of Honshu Island. Radiation levels at the Fukushima nuclear plant remain so high that a group of retired engineers has volunteered to take over the emergency work there because, well, they don't have as long to live anyway. Hammered by the twin disasters, Japan's already fragile economy slipped back into recession in the first quarter of 2011.

One could argue that a power struggle in Tokyo is the last thing the staggering country needs. But Japanese parliamentarians nonetheless turned their fire on Prime Minister Naoto Kan, forcing him to promise he would soon resign, setting the stage for the country to see its sixth prime minister in the past five years.

Facing a no-confidence vote in which his two predecessors as leader of the governing Democratic Party of Japan indicated they planned to vote against the government, Mr. Kan bought time by promising to leave of his own accord as soon as he deemed the country's situation to have stabilized. With the internal party rebellion quelled by his promise to soon leave office, Mr. Kan comfortably survived the no-confidence vote.

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While Mr. Kan's political rivals – including DPJ heavyweights Yukio Hatoyama and Ichiro Ozawa – said they expected the resignation to be tendered as early as this summer, Mr. Kan later suggested he could remain in office until work to stabilize the situation at Fukushima is complete, a process expected to take until the end of 2011.

"Cunning Kan didn't mention a [specific] time when he will step down as Prime Minister … but I assume he will be probably forced to resign sooner rather than later, before autumn," political analyst Takao Toshikawa wrote in an e-mail interview.

However long he stays, the 64-year-old Mr. Kan is now a lame-duck leader, just another in a succession of forgettable prime ministers to take and leave office since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in the fall of 2006.

While opinion polls suggested that Mr. Kan – who was initially praised for overseeing the government's calm response to the tsunami and nuclear crises – had lost the public's trust in recent weeks as the government's handling of the Fukushima debacle came into question, the same polls showed that nearly three-quarters of Japanese wanted politics to be set aside until the recovery work was further along.

Those left homeless and scared by the disasters looked on in disgust as Mr. Kan, Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Ozawa drew daggers on each other, while the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (which earlier this year rejected an offer from Mr. Kan to join a national unity government to deal with the tsunami and nuclear disasters) cheered from the sidelines.

"I feel anger at politicians who are engaged in [such] actions," Tamotsu Baba, the mayor of Namie, a town of 22,000 that was evacuated because of its proximity to the Fukushima plant, told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper before the no-confidence vote. "They should first make every effort to settle the situation at the nuclear plant."

Mr. Kan's temporary reprieve may allow him to do a little more of that. Having survived the no-confidence vote, his government may now find it easier to negotiate the passage of an emergency budget that is required to pay for the country's biggest rebuilding project since the end of the Second World War. However, there are still unaddressed questions over how to fund the extra spending, with Japan already hampered by a debt that is twice the size of its annual economy and many lawmakers opposed to the introduction of a reconstruction tax.

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While the technocratic Mr. Kan is a little-loved figure – one recent opinion poll put his support at just 28 per cent as feeling grew that his government had mismanaged the response to the tsunami and nuclear disasters – the political skullduggery that forced him to offer his resignation will be particularly disheartening to those Japanese who voted in the DPJ two summers ago in what was seen as a rebuke of the long-ruling LDP's backroom deals and revolving leaders. Mr. Hatoyama, who led the party to its breakthrough election win in 2009, was forced to quit early last year over a broken election promise. Now his successor is on the way out too, with Japanese voters – who have played a direct role in choosing just one of their past five leaders – again having little say in the matter.

One problem with the move to oust Mr. Kan is that there are few figures who seem ready to take over the daunting task of running Japan in these difficult times. The DPJ nearly split into two or more factions Thursday (and both Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Ozawa are widely disliked), while the opposition LDP, led by party veteran Sadakazu Tanigaki, is still reeling from its election loss of two years ago.

Government spokesman Yukio Edano gained a cult following through his tireless work in the weeks following the March 11 disaster, but at 47 he is still seen by many Japanese as too young and inexperienced for the prime minister's job. Former foreign minister Seiji Maehara is another potential candidate, but he was forced to resign earlier this year in a funding scandal. Another possibility is Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, a close ally of Mr. Kan's.

The Japanese media blamed all sides for the bickering in a time of crisis. Some see the whole affair as linked to Mr. Kan's post-disaster efforts to take on the country's powerful nuclear industry. "These parliamentary manoeuvres are a joke and sickening," read one recent editorial in Asahi Shimbun.

Despite his current troubles, Mr. Kan is just days away from a telling milestone in Japanese politics. If he can hold onto his job until next week, he'll be the first prime minister since Mr. Koizumi to serve more than a year in office.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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