One feature of today’s Japan is the prevalence of contract workers in a once-stable labour market. Now even the prime minister holds a temporary job. Japan’s previous two premiers, Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda, lasted one year and 11 months respectively. The latest incumbent, just sworn in, will do well to beat even that poor showing.
Taro Aso, a blue-blooded aristocrat known for his slips of the tongue and penchant for teenage comics, is the latest gamble by a Liberal Democratic party desperate to retain its long hold on power.
Like the haken shain, the dispatched workers sent by temp agencies, Mr Aso will have to please his new employees, the Japanese people, who have dismissed the last two prime ministers via lousy opinion polls. If he does not pass the test, he will be sent back to the Liberal Democrats to be replaced by yet another short-contract hopeful.
Does this matter? After all, Japan can rely on a generally competent bureaucracy to keep the country ticking over. Even the enduring prime ministers of recent decades – Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982-87) and Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) – were not as powerful as outsiders assumed.
Yet Japan badly needs the focus that an articulate, more than fly-by-night leader can provide. For all the damage Mr Koizumi wrought in Sino-Japanese relations, he articulated a vision that helped get the country going again. Mr Koizumi’s rhetoric was sometimes misleading. But he still provided a framework in which issues such as tax, spending, social welfare and Japan’s international role, could be debated.
That framework has been lost. Japan has been drifting. Almost no meaningful legislation has been passed since the opposition Democratic Party of Japan seized the upper house last year.
Mr Aso’s chief task is to break this logjam so that Japan can regain some sense of purpose. Unfortunately, he holds few cards. Even if, as expected, he calls a snap election, his party’s two-thirds majority in the lower house will be cut. Because of the parliamentary timetable, the upper house will be in opposition hands for years.
The best Mr Aso can hope for, then, is to provoke political realignment by enticing opposition parliamentarians into the LDP fold. Paradoxically, if he led his party to electoral defeat that might serve Japan better still. At least it would give the opposition a chance to show what it could do – or how spectacularly it could mess things up. Neither is likely. Japan’s premiership is likely to remain an on-the-job training scheme for some time yet.
Get alerts on Opinion when a new story is published