'They have the most peculiar form of government in the world,' a visiting Jesuit priest said more than four centuries ago, and in some ways that comment about Japan still holds. The latest effort to reform a failing political system failed on Monday night, leaving the country with its most unpopular and least competent leader for decades at the head of a ruling structure that rises to mediocrity at its best.
What happens next either to or within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) remains unclear. It has been in power almost continuously since 1955, but increasingly seems unable to cope with national problems. Rather than strong leadership and clear policies, the LDP serves up an endless succession of forgettable prime ministers on a nearly annual basis. Meantime, the economy struggles to escape from a decade of recession.
The latest effort was more of a debacle than most. The repeated gaffes of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori have pushed his popularity rating below 20 per cent, and many LDP elders sought a substitute urgently. Former diplomat Koichi Kato led an unusually boisterous campaign to oust Mr Mori and bring needed reform to the LDP. But when the showdown came, Mr Kato quietly surrendered; his faction boycotted a no-confidence vote and let the Prime Minister keep his job, at least for now.
Presumably, the usual backroom deals prevented the changes which so many fed-up Japanese voters want to see. Even so, Mr Mori may have to go long before next year's elections. However, Mr Kato's sudden collapse has tarnished his reputation seriously. Having walked away from apparent victory so meekly, he may never again receive a similar chance to turn his professed goals into reality.
This means business as usual, and that is what happened yesterday. The parliament passed yet another supplementary budget so the Government can proceed with its current US$9 billion economic stimulus package - aggravating as many problems as it solves.
Similar spending has given Japan a two per cent growth rate after years of shrinkage, but the revival remains weak. It relies on lavish spending in rural districts, effectively buying the votes which keep LDP grandees in power. This strategy blocks political reform and fails to bring long-term economic success.
Party leaders seem content as long as they control the treasury. But voters are tired of this self-serving system, and the LDP risks creating a backlash against its continued rule. To save itself, it needs to find a Koichi Kato who won't walk away when the big chance comes.