Page last updated at 11:14 GMT, Saturday, 27 September 2008 12:14 UK

Japan's political revolving door

As Taro Aso becomes Japan's new prime minister, the BBC's Chris Hogg reflects on the seemingly fickle nature of Japanese politics.

If Oscar Wilde had been doing my job recently, he would have observed that to lose one prime minister might be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose two in a row smacks of carelessness.

Taro Aso bows among fellow lawmakers applauding after he won the election to succeed Yasyo Fukuda as Japan's prime minister
Japan's next general election must be held no later than September 2009
Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party found itself in that situation earlier this month when, for the second time in less than a year, an unpopular premier gave up and announced abruptly he was to resign.

This week, the party chose another new prime minister.

We are back it seems to the era of karaoke politics in Japan, where in quick succession different members of the ruling elite take turns to step up to the microphone and lead the country.

I do not want to sound flippant, but the reality is that most Japanese prime ministers stay in office just long enough to meet the US president and get a photo to impress the grandchildren.

Status quo

I have been here since 2006. The latest prime minister is the fourth I have seen in office in that short time.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda (R) shakes hands with US President George W. Bush (L) (Photo:STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Yasuo Fukuda resigned after less than a year as prime minister
In and out they go, like they are in a perpetually revolving door.

New prime ministers are appointed before other foreign leaders have had a chance to remember the name of the old one, but it does not seem to do much damage to the country.

Japan Inc powers on. It is the second largest economy in the world.

If you come here to visit you will find a wealthy, modern society which has produced some of the most powerful and recognisable brands the world over.

The reason, I am told, is that here the politicians do not actually matter. The country is run by the bureaucrats - the middle managers.

Scripted interview

I was at first a little sceptical of this claim, until I went to the prime minister's office to interview the previous incumbent, Yasuo Fukuda.

The problem with these kind of encounters is that Japanese civil servants are always terrified that their man might put a foot wrong. They try to leave nothing to chance.

A map of Japan showing Tokyo
For days before there are tortuous negotiations about what topics might or might not be discussed.

When you arrive for the interview, there are more flurries and fuss from the small army of men in suits, who fill the room long before their boss makes an appearance.

On this occasion, they wanted Mr Fukuda to talk about the environment. But they were worried he might not follow the script in his interview with me, so they had written out what they wanted him to say and put it on a teleprompter just behind my left ear.

We pointed out politely that this might look a little unnatural, but they were having none of it.

The prime minister would make a statement before the interview began, they said, to make sure he got all the points in, whether I asked them or not.

"But we won't use that," I explained.

No matter, the great man was on his way.

'Three, two, one, cue PM'

He came in, sat down, was perfectly pleasant, and even had a few words to say in English.

But there was no time for chat. An aide started gesturing from behind my head, and barked out: "Three, two, one, cue PM".

The poor man started reading from the teleprompter. I had to keep a straight face so as not to put him off. So did he.

The poor man looked like a puppet and the fact that he was clearly an intelligent, talented politician made the whole experience feel that much more depressing

It was quite obvious to both of us that this was not going to be used, but he was doing what he was told.

By the time I was given the opportunity to ask my questions, I have to confess the latent, bolshy teenager inside me had emerged.

I noticed he had five pieces of paper with densely typed briefings on his lap, one for each question I was expected to ask.

I started asking them but in the wrong order.

That prompted much harrumphing and agitated shuffling of papers from the audience of advisers clustered around us, but the prime minister, to his credit, soldiered gamely on.

The poor man looked like a puppet though, and the fact that he was clearly an intelligent, talented politician made the whole experience feel that much more depressing.

Early election

His replacement, Taro Aso, now has his turn in the spotlight.

Taro Aso
Taro Aso is a known conservative and former foreign minister
So what do you need to know about him?

The grandson of a former prime minister, he is Japan's first Catholic PM and a former Olympic sharp-shooter, but my hunch is that is about all.

You see, Mr Aso is under pressure to call an early general election.

The odds are not looking good. More than half the country disapproves of him and he has been in the job less than a week.

But he has already been to New York and has plans to meet President George Bush in a few weeks' time.

Perhaps wisely, he is getting that important photo opportunity in early. He may not be around for very long.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 27 September, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Japan
24 Sep 08 |  Country profiles
Japan deadlock prompts resignation
01 Sep 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Yasuo Fukuda
01 Sep 08 |  Asia-Pacific

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