After 15 Months In Office Japan's Leader Steps Down

Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced his resignation on Friday. He held the top leadership position for 15 months. His popularity dropped after the government was criticized for its handling of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Kenneth Cukier, the Tokyo correspondent for The Economist, talks to David Greene bout the political situation in Japan.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

In Japan, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced today that he will resign. He's been in office for only 15 months, but his popularity plunged after his handling of the earthquake and tsunami disasters back in March.

His resignation paves the way for a party vote on Monday to determine who will take over Japan's political leadership. To talk more about what this all means for the country, we turn to Kenneth Cukier, the Tokyo correspondent for The Economist.

Kenneth, welcome to the program.

Mr. KENNETH CUKIER (The Economist): Yeah, thanks.

GREENE: Give us the background for this resignation, if you can. How did it come about?

Mr. CUKIER: Sure. Well, it all starts on 3/11, the day of the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

Naoto Kan was dealt a difficult hand for any political leader. But he wasn't prepared for it. In fact, the institutions of politics in Japan were not prepared for it. You had a very young government and party that had not any experience in political power. It's called the Democratic Party of Japan.

They had overthrown the LDP, the previous government, after 55 years of one party rule. So they didn't really understand how to exercise power and the apparatus and the administration of authority in Japan.

So faced with a crisis like this - they've been in power for about a year and a half - faced with the crisis of this, they bungled it very badly. Aid didn't get to the people who needed it right away. Fukushima was not addressed as quickly as it could have been to have prevented the meltdown.

And as a result, the Japanese people were disgusted with the inadequate leadership that Naoto Kan and his administration had shown, and showed their displeasure. Not immediately - that's not the Japanese way - but over time.

And after it built up and they were given many chances, they kept on underperforming, and as a result the people got fed up and his popularity sunk to the level that he couldn't get much done as a leader.

GREENE: Well, you said there were years of political stability in Japan. But recently, I mean, we're talking about this'll be the sixth new prime minister since 2006. What is now making holding that office so hard?

Mr. CUKIER: Japan is going through a transition. It's essentially going from the post-war transition to a next phase transition. And so you have this sort of sense that the public wants something. They don't know what they want.

There's constitutionally a weird set of lots of elections. And you also have a parliamentary system. So it means you can have motions of no confidence that will allow people to replace the party leader at a regular interval.

And Japan does that very well. It's considered a democracy within a democracy, because although you may have one party in power, you have multiple factions vying for control. So as a result, the prime ministership has been a complete revolving door. And that doesn't look like it's going to change.

GREENE: What are the big challenges facing the new prime minister beginning next week?

Mr. CUKIER: The most important thing is going to be the clean-up of Fukushima. It's going to mean decontamination. It's going to mean making sure that the food supply is safe and secure. It's going to mean compensation. It would normally mean how to restructure the energy market for a world in which nuclear power might play less of a role, or more, depending on how Japan chooses.

The second thing, of course, and that's related to it, is the economy. The Japan economy has been in malaise for 20 years. The debt-to-GDP ratio is double what it is in America. So if you thought the debates in America were fractious, the debates here are nonexistent because they are trying to ignore the problem, hoping it'll go away. But it won't, of course.

And so those two issues - Fukushima and the economy...

GREENE: And the economy.

Mr. CUKIER: ...are two critical issues.

GREENE: And so, Kenneth, what is the next step in the process? I understand there's a meeting Monday. I mean how will a new successor be chosen?

Mr. CUKIER: The party is going to have a debate. They will discuss the issues and then they will vote and elect a leader of the party. The leader of the party will become the prime minister. He will select his cabinet and then they will present themselves to the emperor for approval.

GREENE: We've been speaking to Kenneth Cukier, who is the Tokyo correspondent for The Economist.

Kenneth, thank you.

Mr. CUKIER: Thanks, David.

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