Japan Times guest column: “Top 10 most useless Japanese Prime Ministers” (I contribute Murayama)


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Hi Blog. I was invited last week to contribute a bio of who I thought was one of Japan’s “most useless” Prime Ministers.  I was surprised to find that Murayama was not taken.  So here’s my writeup (#5, ordered by when they held office).  There are nine other biographies done by some very knowledgable writers and observers of Japan, so have a read of them here.  Enjoy!  (And if you think there are some even more useless PM notables, mention them in the Comments Section below — but give concrete reasons why, please!). Arudou Debito


The Japan Times, Tuesday, Sep. 27, 2011

No-nos for Noda: Japan’s top 10 most useless PMs

(excerpt, illustration by Chris Mackenzie)

5. Tomiichi Murayama (1994-96)

News photo

Short tenures, imprudent public statements, poor character judgment, weakness under pressure — when we think of useless prime ministers, all this seems like standard operating procedure. However, Tomiichi Murayama’s particular brand of uselessness was peerless. Essentially, everything he touched turned to sh-te.

It’s not as if Murayama had a hard act to follow. His predecessor, Tsutomu Hata, only lasted two months, and was most famous for arguing (when agriculture minister) that beef imports were unnecessary because Japanese have long intestines.

But Murayama was a case study in gutless leadership. His pattern of playing evasive games with the media and the Diet served him poorly during 1995’s Kobe quake, when it took him a day to recognize the disaster and send assistance — and several days more before he even visited the site.

Even potentially notable acts stunk. Murayama’s general apology for Imperial war atrocities was caveated into meaninglessness by both sides of the political spectrum, not to mention overseas observers. He barely developed a concrete platform beyond the perpetual narrow-focus leftist issues (the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution), while ironically giving even more power to the already very-powerful Japanese police (through the Anti-Subversive Activities Act, a reaction to the Tokyo sarin gas attacks).

He was the first Socialist Party prime minister, and the last. Having made a Faustian bargain to take the top job, he then proceeded to sell his party’s soul so blatantly that in his wake the Socialists were moribund and fractured. He proved to Japan’s voters that the left cannot govern, putting the corrupt Liberal Democrats back in power for 13 more years.

No other PM can be credited with setting back Japan’s development into a two-party democracy while killing his own party in the process. Yet. For that, he gets my vote not only as Japan’s most useless, but also its flat-out worst postwar prime minister.

Debito Arudou is the Just Be Cause columnist for The Japan Times
The other nine Most Useless Japanese Prime Ministers can be found on the Japan Times at http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20110927zg.html


17 comments on “Japan Times guest column: “Top 10 most useless Japanese Prime Ministers” (I contribute Murayama)

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    He’s the one who’s responsible for giving Japan a bad name for PROCRASTI-NATION. That won’t fade away, possibly, for good.

  • You`re too hard on him- he was at the head of an unwieldy coalition. A coalition of several parties cannot make quick decisions, and he just became the fall guy for the ineptitude of others. And he cannot be faulted for failing to see-in 1994- the subsequent (consequent?) rise of the nasty rightist PMs that would reign in the 2000s during the tenure of George Bush.

    I ll buck the trend and say I liked him at the time, mainly because he had the guts to make quite a genuine apology and atonement for atrocities in WW2. Compared to denialists like Abe and the war crime-tinged Aso family, he is a well-meaning, humanistic saint in comparison.

    History, as Castro said, will absolve him. He will be most remembered for this speech “On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end,” in which he publicly apologized for Japanese atrocities.

    A bit like Ramsey Macdonald, the first Labor Prime Minister in the UK, his hands were tied by the coalition he led and the situation he was in, even comparable to Gorbachev in a way. The worst you can say is he was a well meaning man ultimately out-manouevred by some nastier, power-hungry, conservative reactionaries who made up the bulk of his government.

    But to paraphrase both Mao and John Lennon, “only the people can change the people”. A large part of the responsibility at the time must lie with the inherent conservative or sheeple mindset of the Japanese electorate in subsequently re electing LDP governments, time after time. (Until they finally either died off and/or got so sick of the LDP and took the plunge en masse and voted for “Change, We can”- again, the J-electrorate arguably just following a media trend from the US of A…)

  • ‘A large part of the responsibility at the time must lie with the inherent conservative or sheeple mindset of the Japanese electorate…”

    Yes, indeed.

    The fact that Japanese voters never seem interested in decisive change, even after the status quo has been fully shown to be a failure betrays the deeper paralysis within Japanese society.

    Within a variety of spheres, such as the economy, immigration, education, criminal justice, and many others, Japanese society is unwilling to accept major change even when such changes are manifestly needed.

  • @charuzu:
    I think you are quite right about change. Perhaps Japanese society doesn’t really understand the meaning of the word; when they say ‘change’, maybe what they really mean is ‘turn back time’, to the imagined glory days of Bubble-era (or, no doubt for some, the Imperial Era).

  • @Charuzu, arguably the urban centres tend to want change, but there are too many “rotten boroughs” in the countryside that elect and re elect conservative prominent families; Japan is rife with political dynasties. It is a situation highly reminiscent of early 19th century Britain and the so called countryside “stupid party”-the Tories (substitute LDP-with only the farmers in the aging countryside backing them.

    Here is a really weird coincidence which backs this up; there is NO LDP former Prime Minister since Takeshita from Tokyo (I didnt research beyond him and Uno); they re all from Inaka and “inherited” the seat from their father in more than a few cases. Takeshita is a typical example: fond of “pork barrel” politics, retaining his own seat by bringing excessively huge public works projects to Shimane.

    However, several NON LDP Prime Ministers (Hosokawa, Hata and Hatoyama)are from Tokyo.

    Ps. I nominate the Divine Yoshiro Mori as the ultimate buffoon Prime Minister. He was described as having “the heart of a flea and the brain of a shark.” I dont think it was meant as a compliment.

  • Firstly, I must second “Flyjin’s” nomination of Yoshiro Mori as the ultimate buffoon as PM. He was pitiful from the start. It was plain as day he was about as dumb as a box full of rocks and yet managed to soldier on. The only voice of dissent I can add to this debate is to challenge the point of trying to select the worst Japanese Prime Minister of all time. Obviously, we all enjoy the prospect of rubbishing a load of useless politicos wherever we are. That the vast majority of them are a nothing but a bunch of self-serving narcissistic trash goes without saying.

    One reason for the continuation of mediocre leadership in Japan is obviously welded to the very political system that has endured here since the Meiji Era. Political parties are collections of individuals who coalesce around a leader and expect to be rewarded for their loyalty. Result, promotion by seniority within the various groups that must be placated for the party to hold together. End result: at best mildly amusing buffoons and duffers, at worst venal, corrupt creatures who perpetuate their hold on power by buying off their electorate with massive capital expenditure in their seats. The only problem is, this system has partially collapsed now there isn’t the money to plow back into the constituencies. There are now two main parties, but seemingly with the same faction-driven politics and inability to break out of the old mindset.

    Asking who is the worst Japanese Prime Minister ever is like wondering what was the most fat-laden, unhealthy McDonalds “Happy Meal” you ever ate!

  • I think ALL modern politicans and leaders are psycopaths who collectively care as much about the well being of their populace as I do when my wife tells me to stop pissing in the sink. That is to say, very very little.

    Honestly, I found myself thinking “hmmm, only ten?” Really, if you could be bothered to, I’m sure anyone could rake up enough dirt on anyone IN politics to very easily shine the shitlight on them. Really doesn’t seem like it would be tough….

    thieves, liars, bastards ALL.

    — Quite a revelation about your relationship with the sink. 🙂

  • Dave Spectrometer says:

    How about Keizo Obuchi who also basically died in office? He had the great idea of issuing coupon ‘scrip’ to everyone to encourage spending. People used the coupons and saved their cash. His other terrific idea was to create a 2,000 yen note with an Okinawa theme to bolster the economy and promote tourism (neither of which worked). He was in office a relatively long time for a post bubble PM (2-3 years), but probably few remember him.

    — Then again, Obuchi managed to confirm the flag and national anthem as official symbols in Japan (a postwar taboo), and set up the stage for people in schools to be forced to revere it. I don’t agree with the politics, but that is a concrete proposal that shifted Japan’s direction towards a political conviction, which is the job of a politician in the first place. Like it or not, Obuchi was effective. (He also destroyed once again hopes for instituting Daylight Savings Time by using it as a savvy underhanded debate tactic.) But yes, I agree the schemes you mention above were pretty hair-brained.

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    I was initially surprised at seeing Koizumi’s name on the list, but he only had to be mediocre to outshine those who came immediately before or after.
    He certainly knew how to play the media well – you can’t convince me that school students started bullying each other into suicide only after he stepped down and Abe waddled up. I’m also sure he knew that visiting Yasukuni was a brilliant smokescreen – the media would follow that and ignore the elephants in the room.
    Certainly Mori was an idiot and would have been better off if Bush had been in power at that time (speaking purely in terms of entertainment factor), but policy-wise, Abe was closer to Dubbuya (in terms of “Who can we invade this week?”) Abe also managed to surround himself with unpleasant rightists, such as a minister for education who believed that real education stopped after 1945.
    And Hatoyama… tried to please everyone, invited all and sundry from any party to join him (including those who were plotting his downfall), and promised the undo 50 years of LDP policy in 2 months – all while the LDP were whining about the situation he inherited… from the LDP

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    Thumbs down to Kaori Shoji and her patronizing “hick from the sticks” comment about Sosuke Uno.

    Uno was from Shiga prefecture (the only such PM), which is right next to Kyoto and is to the Kyoto-Osaka metropolis as Chiba or southern Kanagawa is to Tokyo. Many other PMs have been from less urban places than Shiga.

    Recent PMs have done enough that’s criticism-worthy without cheap potshots like this one.

  • Considering that any leader–even a dictator–ultimately requires the cooperation of the governed, this worst-of-the-worst list says more about the masses of ordinary Japanese than it does about any individual prime minister, no matter how pathetic.

  • I remember some time ago, someone on this blog remarked his disappointment at his Japanese coworkers, who were unable to name any Japanese minister beyond the last three or so. Reading this list, it’s quite easy to forgive them. When writing my dissertation, I had to look into the foreign policy achievements of successive prime ministers. What I found, and not just in foreign policy, was that their premierships really did just come and go completely unnoticed, their rhetoric and policies interchangeable and predictably bland.

    Frankly, I admire the contributors to this article for having remained observers of Japanese politics for so many years without having died of boredom.

    — Or frustration.

  • Murayama was also the first to order Japanese troops to take part in overseas adventures. The UNTAC mission to do peace-keeping in Cambodia was insanity. There was no peace to keep, and some Japanese police officers were ambushed and killed in Cambodia due to Murayama’s rather aggressive foreign policy. Amazing that a socialist was the first PM to commit JSDF troops to an overseas mission. That set a precedent, allowing for recent Iraq involvement and anti-piracy missions. Japan may be back on the path to militarization.

  • I would also add Ryutaro Hashimoto. Under his watch, Japan raised the consumption tax by 66% under the guise of using this “temporary” tax raise to help pay for rebuilding after the Kobe earthquake. 3% to 5% was a big tax hike that stopped Japan’s economy in its tracks. The current DPJ and LDP plan to do a 100% tax hike from 5% to 10% for consumption tax will do more damage to the nation than the tsunami and nuclear disaster combined.

  • “3% to 5% was a big tax hike that stopped Japan’s economy in its tracks. The current DPJ and LDP plan to do a 100% tax hike from 5% to 10% for consumption tax will do more damage to the nation than the tsunami and nuclear disaster combined.”


    Japan’s economy was stagnant before the tax increase, and there are no data to support the claim that the increase of 2% was or could be enough to have such a determinative effect.

    This sounds like the thoughts from USA politicians, with their monomania on tax issues.

    Well-respected, peer-reviewed economic journals provide no such consensus view of the minor tax increase.

    Moreover, the notion that a 5% increase “will do more damage to the nation than the tsunami and nuclear disaster combined” can only be described as bizarre, in the light of the thousands of dead Japanese, and many more Japanese whose health is and will be permanently damaged.

    Moreover, by its very nature, any tax increase is reversible by a simple operation of the Diet.

    There are no such resurrection possibilities available to enliven the dead in Japan, or to heal those maimed and permanently sickened.

    As such, the comparison strikes me as odious and obscene.

  • The consumption tax almost doubled, which destroyed consumer spending and sent the economy into a tailspin, which was worse than just being stagnant. Hashimoto was forced to resign after ramming the big tax hike through, and the LDP was severely weakened by its stupid tax-n-spend left-wing policies.

    Perhaps you may like to read more about this in a peer-reviewed analysis.


    The deaths and injured during the 1995 Hanshin earthquake were the largest Japan had experienced since WW2, and only recently surpassed by the Tohoku tsunami/quake. The comparison is valid because politicians, many of them former LDP, are trying to ram through another tax hike by using the disaster as an excuse.

  • Who would you say are the top ten most successful/greatest prime ministers? I would suggest Koizumi and 池田 勇人 (Ikeda) because they both helped to promote economic growth and reform.

    — I would put it as the “most effective” prime ministers, and I would list from top down, 1) Yoshida Shigeru, 2) Tanaka Kakuei, 3) Koizumi Junichiro, and 4) Nakasone Yasuhiro, regardless of their political bents. I’m not sure I could come up with a list of ten.


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