Politicians resigning is a strange unfamiliar event. It is perhaps even more unheard of when politicians resign without a political scandal or trial behind them. But for Japan’s political system, this event is not as out of the blue it sounds as.
In American as well as Indian politics, the citizens are pretty familiar with the image of an unpopular government that takes protests, rallies, even impeachment trials (hint hint) against them in their stride. Despite multiple scandals, in none of these cases did the president, prime minister or any other political candidate offer to resign. And few citizens even expect resignation, even at the most unpopular moments of their political career.
But this is not how politics works at Japan. Yesterday, came the resignation of the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe citing health reasons. In Japan’s history of Prime Ministers this is not unusual.
Four prime ministers in post-war Japan have had even shorter tenures. And the previous three leaders from the previous government served only for about one year. Many prime ministers have served for shorter than a year, the shortest being a mere 53 days. Shinzo Abe was the longest serving Prime Minister, holding office for more than 7 years. This is in contrast of Jawalaharlal Nehru who held power for 16 years and Franklin Roosevelt who held office for 12 years.
I will use the American system to contrast the Japanese political system, as it is one that features commonly in international news, and one that almost everyone is familiar with.
Unlike in the American system, where politicians are elected to 4 year terms that they are expect to hold unless they are forcibly removed through a complicated legal trial (impeachment). In Japan, the prime minister can serve for an unlimited number of 4 year terms.
However the common sentiment expressed in the Japanese system offers no such expectation. Politicians hang by the narrow fraying thread of public opinion and popularity. And this thread is surprisingly frail, atleast in comparison to common political systems. Simple things like an unpopular military deal, an environmental disaster, even re-gifting potatoes apparently( an old justice minister, Katsuyuki Kawai) could push an official to resign.
And this is about more than just habit, it has become the norm. The sheer number of unpopular politicians resigning has given the expectation that if facing any skirmish at all, the right thing to do is respectfully resign. Infact, pressure from the opposition and public will ensure that even a reluctant politician will find themselves resigning. Japan’s minority parties now know that the public will expect any disgraced official to resign. So minority parties in Parliament feel free to do what they have done in the past, should a Prime Minister become unpopular, they can totally deadlock the government until they resign.
So what propels Japanese politicians to resign so readily, perhaps even at the drop of a hat? This political system has been described by many as a reflection of Japanese culture. Reasons for this peculiar political phenomenon lie in the culture and social hierarchy of Japan. Many think that the Japanese traditional values of ‘saving face’, honour and respect lie behind this. Even the principle of ‘ putting duty before personal requirements and desire’ is a common phenomenon in Japan. Many politicians often resign citing their inability to do justice to their role due to factors such as health, education, etc which further emphasizes this belief.
Japan’s culture and society is the main reason behind it’s unique political system. And it sure is interesting to learn about it.