So the voting is now underway for the Democratic Party of Japan’s presidency, and thus the next prime minister of Japan. Tomorrow all the papers will carry their pieces on “the ninety-fifth prime minister.”*
Which is odd, really. The number 95 doesn’t refer to the number of prime ministers who have headed up Japan’s government, beginning with Itō Hirobumi (whose first term was 1885–88). It’s the number of times a man has been formally selected by the Diet to serve as prime minister. Of course, it’s much easier to write “the ninety-fifth prime minister” than “the person selected to be prime minister in the ninety-fifth such selection by the Diet,” which is why we get this shorthand version in news coverage. This could be described as the ninety-fifth cabinet to form, but that excludes reshuffled cabinets that didn’t involve the Diet tapping the prime minister to serve another term.
I don’t think there’s a very compact way to express this count in English. The English Wikipedia page on Japan’s premiers through history calls this “administration number” as opposed to the number of individuals, but it’s rare to see similar language—and whatever added information would be needed to make it clear to readers—in media coverage of these handovers of power.
In the United States, we talk about Obama being the forty-fourth president, not the fifty-sixth, as he would be if we were counting terms like this Japanese system does. (Things are made sort of confusing by Grover Cleveland, who served two terms with someone else in between; he gets counted as both #22 and #24.) In Japan, though, the standard count is the higher number. Itō was the first prime minister. He was also the fifth, seventh, and tenth, with various other Meiji statesmen taking turns in between his terms.
Nobody needs to push you out of office for you to get a new prime ministership, though. Koizumi Jun’ichirō, the last premier with any staying power, was prime minister #87, #88, and #89. We’re about to get the sixth single-termer in the four years, 11 months that have passed since he left office. Can’t tell the players without a program!
* UPDATE: Who is Noda Yoshihiko.