The nail that sticks up gets hammered down – Japan’s leadership deficit

Posted: August 17, 2011 in English, Realpolitik
Tags: , , , , ,

by Jan Tzschichhold

The Japanese will probably never forget the 11. March 2011, when one of the strongest earthquakes in history killed thousands of people, destroyed vast areas in the North of Japan and created a nuclear threat that has not be seen since Chernobyl. It will take more than a decade for Japan to fully recover from this tremendous disaster, that represents not only a humanitarian and economical crisis but a crisis of political leadership as well.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, failed to declare a state of emergency right after the catastrophe and its huge dimensions were unfolded. It was therefore impossible to establish clear lines of authority for handling the many-headed crisis. It took the government for example more than 10 days to address the severe shortage of fuel in northern Japan, even though the oil companies were holding huge supplies for an emergency. The official nuclear energy consultant resigned under tears, after he criticized the government for its poor performance regarding the situation of the power plant in Fukushima.

On the 2nd of June Prime Minister Kan declared that he would step down after facing the possibility of a no-confidence motion against his cabinet. He is the fifth Prime Minister within 5 years and another example that strong leadership is the exception rather than the rule in Japan. While some argue that the reasons for this phenomena can be found in the Japanese culture itself, which does not reward highly visible and charismatic leaders, others argue that it is the political system that produces one faceless leader after other.

In theory Japanese leaders have much more potential power than for example US presidents do. In reality however they are under huge pressure from various actors. Private interest has massive influence on Japanese politics and its support is essential in order to become Prime Minister. Japanese parties are split in various fractions, each of them are competing with the others in order to get favorable party and government positions. Minister positions are distributed within the party, not a single Cabinet was formed by popular choice. The prime minister is therefor foremost the president of the party and after that the prime minister of Japan. He is accountable to his own party and not to the Japanese people. Furthermore are the real leaders of Japan the so called ‘shadow shoguns’: former Prime Minister and high politicians, that control their fractions and parties from the background. Naoto Kan’s predecessor for example is one of the key figures in his political downfall.

Japan’s Prime Minister, with an average durability of under 2 years, have therefore no intention to pursue political long-time visions and no reasons to make politics for the people that elected their party. They have to consider the wishes and interest of to many actors, what limits their authority and their ability to react quickly. This deficit of leadership is especially visible throughout a national crisis that demands strong and quick decisions.

The 1995 Kobe earthquake, that killed more than 6000 people, showed the whole world Japan’s inability to deal with long-scale crises. Then, Japan’s government was slower than South-Korea’s and even the Japanese Mafia (Yakuza) to set up help for the victims.

16 years later has the crisis-management slightly improved, but in order to rebuild Japan the need of a strong leadership is bigger than ever.



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