Finally, with Naoto Kan, it seemed Japan’s political merry-go-round might stop. Upon being designated the new prime minister in June, he won early raves for blunt warnings about Japan’s massive, unsustainable debt and the need for tax increases to attack it. With the decisive, plain-spoken former activist, Japan seemed also to be calling it quits on another unseemly tradition: de facto hereditary control of public office.
Many countries have their Kennedys and Gandhis, but in Japan, where more than a quarter of lawmakers are descendents of legislators, blood is almost a prerequisite for high office. Kan’s four predecessors were the sons or grandsons of former prime ministers; each quickly flamed out, resigning in the face of falling approval ratings (his immediate predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, lasted all of nine months). The archaic system is blamed for everything from policy gridlock and weak governance to the decline of the world’s second-biggest economy. But Kan, a salaryman’s son with no special connections, as he liked to remind voters—and Japan’s fourth PM in six years—seemed to spell the end to all that.
Just six weeks on, and Kan is making history for another reason, says Richard Katz, editor of the monthly Oriental Economist Report: the fastest fall from grace in Japanese history. After a stunning upset last week for his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in upper-house elections—the DPJ won just 44 seats; the opposition Liberals picked up 51—Kan faces the fight of his life just to stay in office. He faces a divided parliament, without enough power in either house to push laws through, and is also fending off a leadership challenge from party kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa. Katz figures he’ll either step down before the DPJ’s fall leadership convention, or decline to run. The only thing that might save him, adds Stanford University’s Daniel Sneider, is fatigue with Japan’s “revolving-door prime ministers.”
Liberal success is blamed on disenchantment and Kan’s muddled attempt to jack up the five per cent sales tax. But experts see another factor, particularly among swing voters: Shinjiro Koizumi, 29, the heartthrob son of heartthrob former PM Junichiro Koizumi, who campaigned hard for the opposition. The fourth-generation politician wasn’t running himself—he took his dad’s seat in the last lower-house election. But the Liberals, Japan’s traditional ruling party, whose “hereditary ratio” nears 40 per cent, used him in TV ads, and he drew huge crowds.
Tokyo political scientist Nobuhiro Hiwatari says the charismatic younger Koizumi has acquired a solid grasp of policy issues. But his CV’s a little thin. He was elected at 28, having served as an aide to his father (his opponent, by contrast, was a truck driver’s son who worked his way through Japan’s top university, where he obtained a law degree). A sign of Koizumi’s formidable character, according to campaign literature: although his parents divorced when he was a boy, he did not become a juvenile delinquent. Instead, he’s become a minor celebrity; in his Yokosuka district he’s said to be treated like a prince, and women reach out to touch him when he walks past. These days, a lasting split with Japan’s dynastic tradition seems about as likely as the rudderless country suddenly finding its way.