Posted by: Ian Rowley on September 1, 2008
Big news tonight in Japan. The Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda just resigned. Appearing at press conference at 9:30pm local time, the 72-year-old leader blamed opposition parties, which have been using control of Japan’s Upper House to block legislation forwarded by Fukuda’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. When asked how a new LDP leader would make much difference Fukuda, true to his time in charge, didn’t give a clear answer. “The Opposition is constantly in my way,” he said. “We need to make progress.”
Despite wallowing in the polls with an approval rating of just 29%, the move is a shock. Just one month ago, Fukuda reshuffled his Cabinet, hoping a new lineup would reinvigorate the LDP’s standing. Now, just like his disappointing predecessor Shinzo Abe, he has quit suddenly after less than one year on the job. Unlike Abe, who quit citing ill-health, Fukuda insisted his health was in fine fettle save some trouble reading. However, he confessed that the opposition Democratic Party of Japan’s blocking of LDP policies had “had an effect on his mindset.”
The Japanese people might argue that LDP bungling during his and Abe’s ill-fated tenures as Prime Minister have affected their mindsets too. While stockmarkets around the world have sunk in recent months, Japan’s fell faster and deeper as foreign investors worried that reform programs launched by former Prime Minister Junichi Koizumi were being reversed. In the last quarter, Japan’s economy shrank and inflation, currently at 2.4%, is the highest in years and outstripping stagnant wage growth. Savings, meanwhile, earn almost zero interest in Japanese bank accounts. On the international stage, despite Japan holding the G-8 summit in Hokkaido in July, I’d guess few outside Japan know who Fukuda, or Abe, are.
Most depressing of all, Fukuda’s failure will probably do little or anything to change a system, which appears more about meeting the whims of Japan’s political set than the country. At a time when Japan faces genuine challenges, such as how to respond to the global downturn, an ageing population, and the rise of China to name three, the political class appears as out of touch and self-serving as ever. At the end of tonight’s press conference, one reporter asked Fukuda why it was he often seems to be talking about something else when in fact he is talking about himself. Rather than accept his seeming distance might not have been a vote winner, Fukuda suggested it was a good thing. “I may have sounded distant in the past but I am able to view myself objectively and that is my strength,” he said, having just announced his resignation minutes earlier.