Clock Is Already Ticking for Japan's New Leader

Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan answers questions during a press conference in Tokyo on June 4, 2010. (Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)

By Ayako Doi

So Japan has, again, a new prime minister—the fifth in the last four years. It may not matter to the rest of the world now that Japan is not a threat to anyone either economically or militarily. But the fact that all four previous prime ministers resigned within a year of taking office, and that two of them quit because they failed to deliver what Washington wanted but most Japanese didn’t, should be a concern to the US, for which Japan is an indispensable ally in Asia and beyond.

Shinzo Abe, who stepped down in September 2007, was unable to fulfill his promise to then President Bush to have the Japanese navy continue its refueling service for US and other allied ships engaged in the Afghan war. Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader Yukio Hatoyama, who threw in the towel last week, was done in by the Obama administration’s relentless pressure to rescind his campaign pledge to reconsider a US base relocation plan, signed by his predecessor from the Liberal Democratic Party, now in opposition. Portrayed as anti-American, Hatoyama succumbed to the pressure and took responsibility for breaking his promise to the people of Okinawa, where anti-base sentiments are higher than ever.

The fact of the matter is that no right-minded politician in Japan opposes the US-Japan security alliance, nor does the overwhelming majority of Japanese people. But alliance management issues often get caught in domestic political fights, and produce different results from those intended by the head of the government. 

The new prime minister, Naoto Kan, hasn't spoken out much on foreign policy issues. Upon his election, he promptly called President Obama to say he would carry out the plan to move the Marine air station in question to another location in Okinawa, but his pledge is no guarantee. Hatoyama's promise to consider moving the base off the island fired up local opposition to the current plan, which requires paving over a coral reef that is frequented by an endangered mammal—and Okinawa voters may end up electing a governor who is even more anti-base than the current one in November. Moreover, it's possible that Kan's turn as prime minister will be even shorter than those of his predecessors. His term as DPJ president runs only through September, and if his party loses seats in the Upper House election later this summer, there may well be calls from within the party for him to step aside, and make way for yet another leader.

Ayako Doi is an Asia Society Associate Fellow and independent journalist based in Washington DC.