Why Japan's Politicians Are So Bad

It's hard not to pity Shoichi Nakagawa. By now it seems the whole world has heard about the shame of Japan's former finance minister, who turned up apparently drunk at a G7 conference in Rome on Feb. 14. Nakagawa, who slurred his words and seemed to nod off during a press conference, resigned in disgrace soon after.

The real scandal, though, may be the guy who stayed.

Prime Minister Taro Aso, the man responsible for appointing Nakagawa, is still on the job—despite approval ratings in the single digits and an apparent lack of any coherent plan for rescuing the world's second-largest economy from what may become its steepest slump since World War II. Aso's propensity for gaffes—he once said he wanted to turn Japan into a country "where the richest Jews would want to live"—and his failure to find a modus vivendi with the emboldened opposition have condemned Japan to paralysis at just the moment when it's in dire need of strong leadership.

Yet Aso's agony—and that of his party, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)—has even deeper significance. His failings at this crucial moment underscore the country's dramatic leadership deficit. Never, it seems, have the Japanese felt the absence of credible politicians quite so acutely. On Feb. 27 the mainstream Asahi Shimbun newspaper captured the mood in an op-ed when it pleaded, "Enough with the political void." As that line suggested, what's most striking about Aso's shortcomings is how normal they are. Modern-day Japan is a major force in global business, culture and technology—yet in some ways it is governed like a banana republic. Which raises a key question: why?

The current prime minister's failings shouldn't come as a complete surprise. There were always reasons to have low expectations of Aso, who took the job without ever receiving a mandate from the electorate; he was picked by fellow members of the ruling LDP following the resignation of two similarly feckless LDP prime ministers in as many years. His immediate predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda, shocked the nation by almost casually throwing in the towel after just a year on the job, at a surprise press conference on Sept. 1, 2008. And his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, almost wept as he cited unspecified "health reasons" when announcing his decision to step down—also after just 12 months in office.

Yet Aso's performance has been lame even by these low standards. His brief term has been marred by crippling legislative gridlock and an ill-conceived (and unpopular) scheme to stimulate the economy by sending the equivalent of $120 to every taxpayer in the country. Even before he became prime minister, his career had been marred by epic gaffes. He once accused the opposition party of acting like Nazis when they blocked legislation he favored, praised Japan's harsh colonial rule in Korea and Taiwan, and cracked insensitive jokes about Alzheimer's patients.

Explanations for his and his colleagues' ineptitude abound. Some blame their failings on Japanese traditions that value seniority over performance. Others single out the rigid Japanese educational system. Still others point to deeply institutionalized cronyism in the political and business worlds, which tend to prioritize chummy dealmaking over serious policy formulation. But pretty much everyone agrees on the biggest problem. It's the LDP itself, which has singlehandedly ruled Japan, with only one brief interruption, since the party's founding in 1955. For too long, the LDP was essentially the only game in town—a result of the Cold War, when the party was set up as the only counterweight to socialist and communist parties that were anyhow too radical to appeal to mainstream voters in this conservative nation. The party also developed notably opaque ties with business, handing out lucrative public-works contracts or favorable regulation in return for political contributions. The result was a culture of backroom dealing and little accountability. The system rigged the game strongly in favor of incumbents, conformists and timeservers.

While times were good, the flaws in this setup were harder to see; during Japan's boom years, a smoothly functioning bureaucracy and a talented entrepreneurial class delivered enough growth for everyone, and the politicians just had to make sure the wealth trickled down to their constituents. The end of the Cold War, however, and the collapse of Japan's asset bubble after 1989 gradually began to expose the downside of the LDP's dominance. The increasingly sclerotic party seemed bereft of economic answers, dithering for years over how to clean up the banking sector, for example. And yet it managed to hold onto power despite its manifest lack of ideas. Virtual stasis ensued. "The LDP has been in power for so long that it can't change itself," says Masaharu Nakagawa of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

Things briefly looked like they might improve at the beginning of this century, when Japan's economy perked up and a glamorous reformer, LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, took the helm from 2001 to 2006. By appealing directly to the people and campaigning against his own party, Koizumi shook things up and gave great momentum to calls for change. He also drove home the notion that politicians actually can and should sell their big ideas straight to the electorate. Koizumi strengthened the prime minister's office at the expense of the bureaucracy and chipped away at the traditional LDP faction system.

Many things haven't changed. One glaring symptom is the phenomenon of so-called hereditary politicians, who have basically inherited their jobs from family members. In the past 20 years, eight prime ministers have been sons or grandsons of previous LDP politicians. According to a recent study by Japanese journalist Shiota Ushio, a full quarter of all current members of the Diet are the children of ex-legislators; among LDP lawmakers, the figure is even higher, at 40 percent. Even Koizumi, the supposed iconoclast, was a third-generation politician.

Inbreeding has produced a political class deeply out of touch with the nation. The scions attend the best schools and universities in Tokyo, returning to their "home" districts only when election time comes around—which contributes to their sense of estrangement and has inspired disgust among voters. Critics also argue that family connections have made LDP politicians soft. Abe, for example, was the son of a prominent politician and the grandson of a prime minister, and when he precipitously threw in the towel, DPJ member Keiro Kitagami says his constituents interpreted this lack of "gumption or toughness" to Abe's "pampered life."

Another expression of the LDP's oppressive clubbiness is the tendency of its leaders to appoint ministers on the basis of personal affinity rather than professional qualifications. Both Abe and Aso were accused of governing by the principle of otomodachi naikaku: "the cabinet of buddies." "This is one reason we've had such a miserable political situation over the past five years," says political analyst Takao Toshikawa.

It's hard to overstate just how deep the rot has spread. The biggest problem is that the government still hasn't managed to present a credible plan for reviving the economy. It has passed some modest stimulus measures, and more may be on the way. But what's received the most attention has been Aso's ill-fated $20.5 billion cash-payout plan. Many Japanese have raised objections because they can't see why the checks should be sent to rich recipients as well as less-well-off ones—a problem that was compounded by Aso's constantly shifting explanations of the rationale for the policy.

Meanwhile, the missteps of Japan's leaders have become legend, and are almost impossible to imagine in another advanced democracy. In 2003, for example, one Diet member, Seiichi Ota, actually opined that there was still hope for overcoming the nation's demographic crisis because "gang rape shows the people who do it are still vigorous." One minister in Abe's government referred to women in 2007 as "birth-giving machines." Neither seemed particularly concerned about the fallout.

This points to another source of Japan's problems: its electorate keeps returning dismal politicians to office. The DPJ's Kitagami says the voters still too often fail to hold their politicians accountable. "People are too passive, and that's created a sort of lenient environment where you have incompetent politicians holding power."

Yet change may finally be in the offing—thanks largely to the rise, over the past decade, of the DPJ, which finally won control over the Diet's upper house in July 2007. Many Japanese now believe that simply kicking out the old LDP bums in the upcoming general election will have a galvanizing effect. They concede that the DPJ is hardly an ideal vehicle for renewal. Its head, Ichiro Ozawa, is a former LDP bigwig and unpopular; his party offers little programmatic coherence. And many of its leaders are strikingly inexperienced.

Yet there's a widely shared hope that a victory for the opposition could nonetheless serve as the prelude to a broader cleansing of the political establishment. One particularly important outcome would be a much-needed shift toward a system where political ideas are more important than personal connections—something that's already being fostered by the rise of a real two-party establishment. "It was one thing when you had a closed, hermetic system," says Tobias Harris, author of the blog Observing Japan. "Nowadays you actually need to appeal to people to bring them along. It's not enough to say 'Here's our campaign slogan, here's how we're going to do the budget'." The DPJ's Nakagawa says that previous methods for winning power are changing. "Earlier there were certain opinion leaders in each village, each community. In the old days we could talk to them, and they would influence the vote," he says. "But now people have begun to think for themselves." The machine, in other ways, may finally be breaking down. It's about time; in fact, it's long overdue. For given the many problems Japan now faces, change can't come fast enough.