A Dreadful Failure to Lead

Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa pauses at a press conference as he announces his resignation at his office in Tokyo on February 17, 2009. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

by Nobuyoshi Sakajiri

Originally published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, February 25, 2009

Given the global financial crisis, the G-7 press conference was an important stage for financial and monetary authorities to send a clear message to the markets. But Shoichi Nakagawa, the finance minister of Japan, looked groggy and slurred his words as if drunk. Mr. Nakagawa, reportedly a heavy drinker, initially claimed, “I drank the night before, but didn’t touch a drop before the news conference.” Later he admitted that he had “enjoyed some wine at lunch.”

Although Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso refused to fire Mr. Nakagawa, the finance minister ultimately resigned after images of his wobbly performance played repeatedly on TV and the Internet world-wide.

In fact, Mr. Nakagawa’s blunder at the G-7 meeting was not his first. He made as many as 26 errors while reading his policy speech at the House of Representative in late January. This latest resignation highlights the Aso administration’s lax crisis management. Mr. Nakagawa is the second minister to step down from the Aso cabinet since last September, following former Construction and Transport Minister Nariaki Nakayama who left last September after just five days on the job, amid mounting criticism of a series of controversial remarks.

Meanwhile, Japan’s economy continues its downturn. The real gross domestic product tumbled by an annual rate of 12.7% in the last quarter of 2008, the sharpest contraction since 1974 amid the first oil crisis, and only the second double-digit decline in the postwar era.

Yet it could be argued that Japan's political decline is even worse than its economic decline. Mr. Aso is Japan’s third prime minister in less than two years, all three chosen by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Prime Minister Aso must call for a general election before September when the term of the Lower House ends, but his approval ratings are dismal (around 10%) and the LDP is surely in danger of losing power in an election.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Aso received an invitation last Tuesday from U.S. Secreatary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to visit Washington this month, which would make him the first foreign leader to meet with President Barak Obama at the White House. But this platinum ticket might be too little too late for Mr. Aso’s popularity back home.

When asked about the disarray of Japanese politics and its impact on U.S-Japan relations during a Tokyo interview, Mrs. Clinton responded that the U.S.-Japan alliance would continue to be durable “no matter who is in charge here in Tokyo.” That generally has been true. But the Japanese minister of defense whom Mrs. Clinton met in Tokyo is the sixth defense minister in just two years. This may be acceptable for an inconsequential country but not for the second largest economy in the world.

People in Japan are becoming increasingly aware of a major reason why so many Japanese politicians are perhaps not suited for the job—the ever increasing number of seshu giin, or hereditary politicians, who followed family members into politics without ambition or passion.

Japanese politics is open only to a limited number of elite, and the dynamism of Japan’s democracy has been in crisis for decades. In addition to Mr. Nakagawa—whose father is a former minister of agriculture—Prime Minister Aso and 11 of his 18 cabinet ministers are also seshu giin. The three most recent leaders, Mr. Aso, Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe, are all sons or grandsons of past prime ministers. Sadly, becoming prime minister is no longer a common dream for children in Japan.

Witnessing these sudden resignations in the less than year-old Aso cabinet, people have begun questioning the capability of the second and third generation of political families. The Japanese traditionally admire bloodlines or family trees as much as they admire the emperor, but they are also gradually realizing that politics should be different from the arts or entertainment like kabuki. However, it is unfortunate for voters who are frustrated with the increase of seshu giins that the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Ichiro Ozawa, is yet another politician who directly succeeded his father.

For the next election, Shinjiro Koizumi, age 27, the second son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi who announced his retirement last year, is running for his father’s old seat. Shinjiro Koizumi lacks any professional experience other than as a research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a highly-regarded think tank in Washington D.C., but he does have ready-made local support and an existing political machine. His opponent from the DPJ is an equally young lawyer with no political background in his family. Recent media polls predict Shinjiro Koizumi’s landslide victory.

Once elected, he will be the fourth generation to join the “family business.” But those polls were held before Mr. Nakagawa’s resignation. Whether the finance minister’s disgraceful behavior will be a wake up call to the Japanese voters, who are far more embarrassed than the minister himself, is not yet clear.

Nobuyoshi Sakajiri is Asia Society’s Bernard Schwartz Fellow based in Washington, D.C. He was the Beijing correspondent of the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, from 2005 to August 2008.