Is Japan Still Looking for Leadership?

H. D. P. Envall, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University [About | Email]

Volume 17, Issue 3 (Book review 3 in 2017). First published in ejcjs on 17 December 2017.

Sahashi, Ryo and Gannon, James (eds) (2015) Looking for Leadership: The Dilemma of Political Leadership in Japan, Tokyo: Japan Center for International Exchange, paperback, ISBN: 9784889071429, 204 pages.

Keywords: Japanese leadership, Japanese politics, Japanese foreign policy.

Looking for Leadership, edited by Ryo Sahashi and James Gannon, taps into a rich field of angst over Japan’s “vacuum of political leadership” or “leadership deficit” (p. 12). Concern about weak or ‘reactive’ Japanese political leadership is a well-established theme in Japanese studies. Numerous scholars, often from aboard but also from Japan, have questioned the country’s approach to political leadership or highlighted its passive and reactive nature (e.g. Tokuyama 1991; Hayao 1993; Bowen 2003). Of these, perhaps the most influential doubter has been Karel van Wolferen (1989, 295), who argued in the late-1980s that “[n]o one in Japan is given the unambiguous right to rule. No one person or group of people is ever really accountable for what Japan does. Japanese leadership is thus always incomplete.” Indeed, the term ‘leadership deficit’ itself is not particularly new: Aurelia George Mulgan (2000) employed it nearly two decades ago to address Japan’s weak political leadership and the reforms then recently put in place to address the problem.

Many others have of course assessed Japanese political leadership in a more positive light. Such scholars have highlighted particular cases of effective or prominent Japanese leadership or detailed the changing nature of leadership in Japan, especially since the 1990s (e.g. Edström 1996; Curtis 1999; Takayasu 2005; Gaunder 2007, Fujimura 2007; Shinoda 1994, 2000, 2007; Uchiyama 2010; Blechinger-Talcott 2010; Clausen 2013; Envall 2008b, 2015b). Most notably, Richard Samuels (2003, 351) has argued that Japan does not lack leaders but rather that “Japanese history is filled with protagonists.” Yet Looking for Leadership, which views the state of political leadership in the country as a grave concern, clearly sits in the former camp. Its main criticisms of Japanese political leadership are that Japanese leaders struggle to project strong leadership, effectively wield power, or even stay in office. This has made it harder, they argue, for Japan to carry out economic reform, deal with the country’s many challenges (e.g. the aging population), or respond to crises, such as the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 (p. 11). Further, as Japan’s international environment becomes more difficult, leadership failures in foreign affairs are now “more consequential,” meaning that the “stakes are higher than ever when it comes to the problem of Japanese political leadership” (p. 12).

Accordingly, the book addresses questions of why it has become “so difficult for Japan’s top leaders to stay in office and exercise strong leadership, whether this is likely to change, and what it means for Japan’s foreign relations” (pp. 12–14). In taking up these issues, the contributors, including scholars such as Hosoya Yuichi and Takenaka Harukata, as well as practitioners and former practitioners such as Ochi Takao and Uchida Ando Yuka, examine such as issues as how Japan’s leadership deficit has emerged and how Japanese party politics has shaped leadership (for further works by these scholars, see Takenaka 2006; Hosoya 2011). A key focus of the book is the leadership failures of governments led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) between 2009 and 2012. Unfortunately, the book pays very little attention to the return of Abe Shinzō as prime minister in December 2012, even though it was published in late 2015, nearly three years after Abe’s remarkable return to power.

Indeed, it is often said that ‘timing is everything’ in life, and so it also is with academia. When the contributors first gathered in Tokyo to workshop the volume in early 2012, the Japanese political landscape looked quite different to the present. The DPJ was in its death throes as a government and Japan had endured a revolving door of political leadership, with seven prime ministers in six years. Yet Abe returned to power in December that year and may even go on to become Japan’s longest serving post-war prime minister. Further, Abe has pursued and brought about major, if controversial, reforms in national security policy, including boosting the alliance with the United States and reinterpreting the Japanese Constitution to give Japan the right to exercise collective self-defence (e.g. Liff 2015; Envall 2016; Hughes 2017). He has also pursued bold economic reforms under the banner of ‘Abenomics’, albeit with much less success. Abe managed all this, moreover, after a disastrous first tenure as prime minister between 2006 and 2007 (see Envall 2011).

Abe’s achievements therefore are problematic for the book’s central hypothesis of a revolving door of leadership in Japan and, especially, the assertion that staying prime minister has become particularly difficult in recent times. In fact, his prime ministership would suggest the opposite: that with the right combination of communication, electoral, management, and policy skills, Japanese prime ministers can enjoy extended periods of tenure and wield power during these periods with great effect. Abe also joins a substantial list of post-war prime ministers who have enjoyed lengthy stays in office. These include: Yoshida Shigeru (1946–47, 1948–54), Ikeda Hayato (1960–64), Satō Eisaku (1964–72), Nakasone Yasuhiro (1982–87), Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001–06), and now Abe (2006–07, 2012–). In light of this substantial and growing list, arguments that characterise these leaders as the “exception that makes the rule” (Envall 2008a) become more difficult to sustain. Japanese prime ministers, it seems, regularly stay in office for substantial periods and are able, during these times, to implement significant changes. Satō oversaw the establishment of Japan’s three non-nuclear principles (for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1974) and the reversion of Okinawa (Kōno 2006; Kōsaka 2016), while Nakasone and Koizumi undertook substantial privatisation and economic reforms (see Uchiyama 2010; Kusano 2016).

Nonetheless, Looking for Leadership is right to highlight Japan’s high rotation of prime ministers compared to many other parliamentary democracies. For instance, between January 1997 and January 2007, Australia had just one leader, Prime Minister John Howard, while Japan had five (Hashimoto Ryūtarō, Obuchi Keizō, Mori Yoshirō, Koizumi, and Abe). In between the tenures of these major political figures such as Nakasone and Koizumi, the country has undergone several periods of especially high leadership turnover, not only in the mid-2000s but also during the 1990s, the late-1980s, and the late-1970s. Further, as Ochi (pp. 84–85) points out, the average prime ministerial term has become shorter across the post-war period. Focusing especially on the latest period, Hosoya (pp. 31–45), Takenaka (pp. 46–82), and Ochi (pp. 83–107) offer a variety of explanations for why this has been the case. These include highly factionalised party politics, the vagaries of the electoral system, too much power vested in Japan’s upper house (especially when it is ‘twisted’ or controlled by the opposition), or too much autonomy given over to parliamentary committees.

The most interesting of these explanations, however, comes from Ochi, a sitting politician from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Ochi (p. 92) asks a basic question with regard to Japanese leadership: “Why do prime ministers resign?” He then identifies a range of causes prominent since 1955, including ill health, declining poll numbers, and elections (including party elections). Poor health and election losses account for some departures, but the bulk might be described as leaders ‘taking responsibility’, usually for poor election results short of a loss or declining polling support, but also in response to intra-party turmoil. Ochi (pp. 95–98) thus identifies intra-party rivalry, exacerbated by regular party presidential elections, as a key ‘trigger’ behind the high turnover of prime ministers. Prime ministers can be challenged within their own party even when they are in good health, wish to remain in office, and have not lost elections. The wider party, generally the LDP, has put its interests before those of the prime minister, and so sitting prime ministers have been regularly challenged by their own colleagues. Ochi (p. 102) argues that, historically, this has made some sense. First, it allows for the rapid removal of unpopular prime ministers. Second, it means that leadership can be shared around, an important contributor to party stability, and thus keep its grip on power, during times of high intra-party rivalry. Third, it does not necessarily end former prime ministers’ careers, since they often go on to become elders in the party. But as time has gone by, Ochi suggests (p. 104), the side-effects of this party-first approach have grown. Put simply, the party may have been putting its interests not only ahead of the prime minister but also ahead of the nation.

This ‘national interest’ argument constitutes the key second part of the book’s central hypothesis. The high prime ministerial turnover has wider negative consequences for Japan, especially in foreign affairs. Gannon and Sahashi (pp. 19–24) explore the costs of weak leadership at both the domestic and foreign policy levels. Domestically, these include “a certain level of drift in policy,” such as in structural economic reform, a lack of a comprehensive agenda, weak policy implementation, and poor bureaucratic oversight. Internationally, they include the diminution of Japan’s international role, an inability to deal with difficult policy challenges, such as the relocation of the Futenma airbase in Okinawa, an inability to compete with China, and growing unpredictability in foreign policy.

Yet this argument is not convincing. Establishing causal relationships between political leadership and policy outcomes is fiendishly difficult. In this regard, the relationships identified in Looking for Leadership, such as that between weak leadership and a “certain level of policy drift,” are too broad to be conceptually useful. Further, there is also little correlation between particular leadership types and tenures and policy outcomes since the 1990s. Short-lived, weak leaders have overseen notable policy reforms (e.g. Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro and the 1993 electoral reforms), while longer-serving strong leaders have not always been great policy reformers. The policy impact of Koizumi is contested. As Blechinger-Talcott (2010, 72) argues, “Koizumi failed in his endeavour to produce sustainable economic and structural reforms.” Even the success of Abe in the economic field is questioned by Gannon and Sahashi (p. 20). Instead, all the explanations for Japan’s high turnover of leaders noted above actually point to deeper institutional and even societal weaknesses as causes of the country’s inability to address major policy challenges. Even if the premise—that Japan faces uniquely challenging policy dilemmas—is correct, weak or short-lived leadership hardly seems the right place to start when investigating the causes.

This is especially true of Japan’s international relations. A key area of foreign policy failure identified in the book—the blunders of the DPJ—are already well documented (e.g. see Shinoda 2013; Envall 2015a; Envall and Fujiwara 2012). Sahashi nevertheless provides a nuanced and detailed account of the DPJ’s diplomatic missteps while in government (pp. 131–58), focusing on three failures: the relocation of the US Futenma airbase in Okinawa, the promotion of the East Asian Community idea, and the management of the dispute with China over the Senkaku islands. At first glance, the weak leadership of Hatoyama Yukio appears to be a leading culprit behind the first two of these disasters, with Noda Yoshihiko playing a key role in the third. However, Sahashi’s excellent analysis strongly points to a conclusion that the DPJ’s failures were vastly over-determined, with multiple factors pushing it towards ill-fated strategies and chaotic tactics. Some of these factors included: a policy process that was too ideological; a lack of party consensus; an inability, or refusal, to utilise bureaucratic expertise; strains in the governing coalition; a lack of diplomatic expertise and experience; and a shifting regional order due to the rise of China. Moreover, an argument can actually be made that a contributing factor was not weak leadership but overly strong leadership on the part of Hatoyama, who demonstrated an approach to leadership that was rich in rash promises, poor listening and consulting, and an obsession with reform. That Japan’s institutional constraints ensured that Hatoyama served less than nine months as prime minister should arguably be viewed as success rather than failure.

Overall, Looking for Leadership offers many fascinating insights into contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy. Yet it is too pessimistic, on the one hand, about the state of Japanese political leadership, and too optimistic, on the other hand, about the benefits that ‘stronger’ leadership would bring. Too often, the book assumes that extended tenure of prime ministers will inevitably lead to stronger leadership. But elsewhere scholars have pointed out the leaders may stay in office for long periods of time without achieving anything of substance. Archie Brown (2014) questions the impact of Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, despite Blair having served as prime minister for ten years. Before Blair, John Major served as prime minister for over six years to little effect. The book also falls into the trap of assuming that strong leadership means good leadership. Indeed, such thinking, as Brown (2014, ix) argues, constitutes “the myth of the strong leader” (italics removed). Gannon and Sahashi (p. 20) seek to overcome this problem by defining strong leadership as the “ability to get things done.” But the implied reasoning is circular. Thus viewed, strong leadership is good because it is successful; if it is unsuccessful, it cannot have been strong leadership. Such arguments say little about the nature of what is being done or whether it might be desirable. They also give insufficient attention to the need to maintain a nation’s institutional capacity to constrain poor political leaders. By giving free rein to a strong leader today, a nation may be weakening its ability to contain the damage done by the Hatoyamas of tomorrow.

So, does Japan have a problem with weak political leadership? It is easy to see Japan’s lost decades of economic stagnation and relative international decline as the product of weak leaders. But the reality is more complex. First, from a social science perspective, it is impossible to attribute Japan’s many policy failures to leadership failures alone. Second, the empirical data are in fact not so awful as the book’s pessimism would suggest. In the face of major economic and societal challenges, Japan’s political system has maintained order, social harmony, and reasonable prosperity. How are other democracies coping with the similar challenges brought about by the much more recent global financial crisis? America has turned to a former reality-TV star for president: a figure reportedly described as a “moron” by his secretary of state (New York Times 2017) and someone the country now has to live with for four years, short of impeachment or an invocation of the 25th Amendment (Osnos 2017). Australia has had four prime ministers since June 2013 (including one prime minister twice). The United Kingdom had a supposedly ‘strong’ leader until the June 2017 election. It now has a lame duck prime minister and is deeply divided over the results of an earlier “bold” leadership decision to hold a referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union (Economist 2017). Japan’s challenge today appears to be more institutional. Its opposition parties are too weak and divided and its judiciary appears unwilling to impose constraints on the executive, at least so far as Article 9 of the Constitution is concerned. Still, the Japanese should be less self-conscious about their prime ministers. Compared to other parts of the world right now, Japan’s leaders are doing fine.


  • James Gannon and Ryo Sahashi, ‘Looking for Leadership’, 11–28.
  • Yuichi Hosoya, ‘The Evolution of Japan’s “Leadership Deficit”’, 31–45.
  • Harukata Takenaka, ‘The Frequent Turnover of Japanese Prime Ministers: Still a Long Way to a Westminster Model’, 46–82.
  • Takao Ochi, ‘Party Politics and Leadership Change in Japan: The Prime Ministerial Relay’, 83–107.
  • Yuka Uchida Ando, ‘What Went Wrong under the DPJ?’ 108–27.
  • Ryo Sahashi, ‘The DPJ Government’s Failed Foreign Policy: A Case of Politician-led Government Gone Wrong’, 131–58.
  • Satoru Mori, ‘Political Leadership in Japan and Japanese Foreign Policy: Lessons from the DPJ Governments’, 159–77.
  • James Gannon and Ryo Sahashi, ‘Japan’s Way Forward: The Prospects for Political Leadership and the International Implications’, 181–96.


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About the Author

H. D. P. Envall is a research fellow in the Department of International Relations at The Australian National University. David received his BA (Hons) and PhD from the University of Melbourne and his MA from Hitotsubashi University. In addition to having worked as a copy editor and corporate editor/writer, he has taught on Japan’s international relations at Tokyo International University and on politics and Asian studies at La Trobe University. His research interests include Japanese political leadership, Japan’s post-war security politics, and security in the Asia-Pacific. His book on Japanese political leadership, Japanese Diplomacy: The Role of Leadership, was published by the State University of New York Press in 2015.

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