Why Do Japanese Prime Ministers Keep Resigning?

Naoto Kan is only the latest in a long string of Japanese politicians who step down in disgrace



Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament on Thursday, but his victory came at a high, seemingly self-defeating cost: Kan promised to resign as soon as the earthquake-sparked nuclear crisis is over. When Kan steps down, he will be the fourth Japanese Prime Minister to do so since 2007, when Shinzo Abe resigned less than a year into his term. Abe, in his resignation address, cited the same rationale as would Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in 2008, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in 2010, and Prime Minister Kan did this week: unpopularity. (Taro Aso, elected in 2008, was defeated in a 2009 election, never getting the chance to resign.) Their poll numbers had dropped, the Parliament had split, and, according to the resignation announcements, their unpopularity had made neither the prime minister nor the government itself able to effectively govern.

Americans are intimately familiar with the image of a federal government paralyzed by the chief executive's unpopularity. Presidents Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, George W. Bush after the 2006 midterm election, and perhaps even Barack Obama in the first months after the 2010 midterm election. In one case in late 1995 and early 1996, the American government was literally shut down as Republicans attempted to overpower the unpopular Clinton in a federal budget dispute. But in none of these cases did the president, though his unpopularity had clearly incumbered the functioning of the state, offer to resign. And few Americans honestly expected resignation, even at the president's least popular moment.

So why is Japan different? Why do its top officials -- and this trend extends across senior government posts -- resign office, seemingly at the drop of a hat? The theories are endless, most of them relying on oft-repeated but simplistic stereotypes about the supposed centrality of honor, saving face, and respect in Japanese culture. But if these traits really are so important to Japanese culture, then the same could be said of Arab culture. But, clearly, Arab political leaders feel no compunction to step down, even if they become so loathed that the country rises up by the millions to demand their exit.

As a staff editorial in The Guardian put it in March, when Japan's talented Foreign Minister resigned over a bribery scandal that would have made most K Street lobbyists shrug:

There is no consensus on why Japan's prime ministers are so frail. Some put it down to the fact that the ultimate stability resides in the emperor, and dismissing a prime minister is no more traumatic than changing the coach of a baseball team. Others point to the postwar education system. Prime ministers have relatively low salaries, little authority even within cabinet, and limited terms. Whatever it is, Japan could do with one who can stay around for more than a year. All applications are welcome.

Whatever the personal motivation driving these men's (and Japan's senior politicians are almost always men) decisions, the effect has been to establish a radically direct sort of democracy. Kan clearly felt that he was expected to resign, as did his predecessors before him. Every such resignation, of which there have been many in the past five years, reinforces a new norm: if a politician becomes too unpopular, he must resign. The more repeated and expected this behavior becomes, the more that voters and politicians alike will assume that this is simply how Japan's system works.

Unlike in the American system, where politicians are elected to terms that they expect to hold unless they are impeached through a complicated and transparent legal process, this new Japanese system offers no such expectation, hanging officials by the narrow thread of popular opinion. Anything that frays that thread -- an unpopular military deal, an environmental disaster, a particularly ugly shirt -- could push a Prime Minister or other official to resign. And this is about more than just habit. Japan's minority parties now know that the public will expect any disgraced official to resign. So minority parties in Parliament will feel free to do what they have done in the past, should a Prime Minister become unpopular: totally deadlock the government until he resigns.

Japan's political culture of existential popular accountability, in which any politician could feel compelled to resign at any time if popular opinion turns, might be more democratic -- in a sense, Japanese choose whether or not to reelect every time they answer an opinion poll -- but is it more effective? The U.S. system, after all, was designed to internalize majority public opinion, but also to protect against it: Supreme Court justices serve lifelong terms, legislation is passed by representatives rather than by referendum (except in California, which instituted the referendum system to catastrophic results), and elected officials take their full terms in all but the most extreme cases.

At some point, government officials must be allowed to do what they think is right, not merely what is popular, if that government is to function. But whoever succeeds Kan, knowing that a dip in approval would mean widespread expectations of resignation, will feel pressured to maintain day-to-day popularity at all costs. Japan's problems are too vast, and its strengths too great, to be ruled by something as capricious and frivolous as the whims of the majority.