Birds have more leadership – Japanese politics

So I am here in the middle of Sweden attending an entrepreneurial conference with over 2,000 other people from over 55 countries. When I inevitably meet people, introduce myself and say I’m from Japan, I always get asked what is going on with our prime ministers. Therefore, I thought I’d put together this little recap of this rather confusing topic.

After 259 days in office, in a somewhat rambling 20+ minute resignation speech, (via Twitter) Mr. Yukio “the alien” Hatoyama resigned as the prime minister of Japan on June 2nd (coincidentally, Mr. Horst Köhle, the president of Germany also resigned a few hours earlier). Most incredibly, in his speech he mentioned it was the sight of a little songbird (which he initially got wrong) that gave him the idea to resign. His biggest accomplishment, however, may have been to get Mr. Ichiro Ozawa, the powerful secretary-general (and de facto leader) of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), to resign with him.

It all looked so hopeful after the 2009 elections wherein Mr. Hatoyama led the Democratic Party of Japan to victory over the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had ruled almost continuously since 1955. Apparently, this was the worst defeat for a governing party in modern Japanese history – leading to the resignation of then PM Taro Aso.

Here are some interesting (but sad) statistics to consider:

  • Since 2006 Japan has had five prime ministers
  • All five PM’s were either son or grandson of a former prime minister
  • Three of them lasted less than one year in office
  • In the past 20 years, only one lasted more than three years – Junichiro Koizumi
  • In the same 20 years, the GDP has not changed

Mr. Hatoyama now leaves behind (for new incoming PM Naoto Kan) several big (and immediate) headaches:

  • Debt to GDP ratios of around 200%
  • More economic headache of persistent deflation
  • An angry Okinawan people who were promised to have the Futenma base moved – something Hatoyama brought on himself as a campaign pledge
  • Rising tensions with North Korea
  • Postal system privatization/consumption tax increase debates

What will happen next? Personally, I have a little more hope in DPJ version 2.0. Namely, that the lightning rod role that Mr. Ozawa (who only resigned from office and, unlike Hatoyama, will not quit politics) played will not be as big an issue (hopefully) going forward. Second, that the various financing scandals have all rung themselves out. Finally, unlike the last several PM’s, Kan is a self-made man who made his own way up the political ladder.

Incredibly, even with all this political musical chairs, Japan has (still) remained the 2nd largest economy in the world. It goes to show that at every level of Japanese society, they have very good managers (i.e., the various ministries) yet lack great leaders. At this point, I don’t really care which political party is in charge. I just hope there is more sustained leadership to help guide Japan out of some huge problems.

We shall see. Your comments are always welcome.

William Saito
Special Advisor at Cabinet Office (Govt. of Japan)
Named by Nikkei as one of the “100 Most Influential People for Japan,” Saito began software programming in elementary school and started his own company while still in high school and was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 1998 (by Ernst & Young, NASDAQ and USA Today). As one of the world’s leading authorities on cybersecurity.

After selling his business to Microsoft, he moved to Tokyo in 2005 and founded InTecur, a venture capital firm. In 2011, he served as the Chief Technology Officer of the National Diet’s (Parliament) Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. Later that year, he was named as both a Young Global Leader and Global Agenda Council member for World Economic Forum (WEF) and subsequently been named to its Foundation Board. In 2012, Saito was appointed to a council on national strategy and policy that reported directly to the Prime Minister of Japan.

Saito also advises several national governments around the globe. In Japan, he has served as an advisor to Japanese ministries; the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST); the Information Technology Promotion Agency (IPAS); the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, among others. He is currently the Special Advisor to the Ministry of Economic Trade and Industry (METI) and the Cabinet Office for the Government of Japan.

He went to medical school at UCLA and Harvard Kennedy School; serves on various boards of Global 2000 companies; frequently appears as a commentator on TV and is the author of seven books in addition to writing several weekly newspaper columns. His management book, The Team: Solving the Biggest Problem in Japan, was published by Nikkei BP and became a best-seller in 2012. In 2016, Saito received the Medal of Honor from the Government of Japan for his work in the field of education.

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