Japan's Leadership Muddle

OSAKA – Having seen a new prime minister every year for five consecutive years, Japan has just narrowly avoided having its third in 2010. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has been elected President of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), surviving a challenge from Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ’s most potent behind-the-scenes power broker. Had Nan lost to Ozawa, he would have lost the premiership to him as well.

With DPJ lawmakers almost equally split, Kan’s victory is being attributed to the support of general and associate party members. Their vote was more in line with recent public-opinion polls, which showed popular support running at seven-to-two in favor of Kan over Ozawa.

Only three months ago, Kan was chosen as the DPJ’s top leader to restore its public image, which had been severely tarnished by political-financing scandals involving his predecessor as prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, and a separate scandal involving Ozawa. Hatoyama’s mismanagement of Japan’s relations with the United States, centered on the relocation of a Marine base in Okinawa, had also dented the DPJ’s standing.

From the moment the DPJ took power in 2009, Kan was tacitly slated to be Hatoyama’s successor, given that he was concurrently Hatoyama’s deputy prime minister and treasury minister. In these posts, Kan avoided involvement with the two issues that wrecked Hatoyama’s premiership: the controversial base relocation issue, and debates over budget cuts. Consequently, he was aloof from the DPJ’s feud with Japan’s powerful bureaucratic mandarins, who are desperately trying to safeguard the longstanding bureaucratic/cabinet system in which the once-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) passed mandarin-drafted, cabinet-sponsored bills and budgets, almost continuously, for five decades.