Tokyo Notes

Hatoyama: Dream Killer

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Tokyo Notes

Hatoyama: Dream Killer

Whether it’s a case of ‘nice guys finish last’ or not, Hatoyama’s quashed the hopes of many.

Yukio Hatoyama’s resignation is not a typical case of another short-lived Japanese prime minister bowing out. While he is the fourth premier to bite the dust here in as many years, unlike his predecessors, Hatoyama’s demise brings with it the crushing disappointment of a nation’s dashed hopes.

When Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan swept to victory in last year’s general election, it was a very different story. Expectations rocketed that at last Japan had a second viable political party that could not only govern in place of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party but one that could also transform the very nature of Japanese politics.

The DPJ promised to clean up the political world and empower politicians to take the lead in policymaking instead of bureaucrats. It said it would reallocate money to the people and away from concrete. It also pledged to build a relationship of equals with the
United States.

The implication was that the party would put an end to cosy relationships among lawmakers, bureaucrats and public works contractors, and instead get politicians to focus on policy, not on who they could do business with. The money saved by trimming public works could then be spent on the people and an improved social safety net. Child benefits would be introduced, high school tuition would become free, expressway tolls would be axed, gas surcharges would be scrapped and so on…and all this without an increase in the consumption tax.

But plunging tax revenues due to the global economic crisis and a failure to generate sufficient funds through the trimming of waste soon put the dream into perspective as the huge national debt swelled closer to 200 percent of GDP.

Meanwhile, cabinet members, with their greater scope to talk about policy, were contradicting one another, as signs of a lack of leadership by Hatoyama started to strengthen. Even worse, as party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa slipped into a familiar position of behind-the-scenes string puller, both he and Hatoyama were linked to money scandals involving their funding organizations.

But it was failure to meet a promise to relocate the US Marines’ Futenma air base outside Okinawa that tipped Hatoyama over the edge. He made the pledge to the people of Japan’s southernmost prefecture, which is home to the majority of US bases in the nation. But this promise went beyond the confines of even the DPJ’s optimistic election manifesto. Not only that, he didn’t have a relocation plan in mind. How many veteran politicians would touch a done deal between nations without a viable alternative?

Once he started to realize the difficulties involved, Hatoyama tried to buy time by stating in December that he would resolve the issue by the end of May. But the problems, namely the lack of an alternative site that would be approved by local people and resistance from the US to change from the originally agreed location, would not be solved so easily, leading to Friday’s joint US-Japan statement in which Hatoyama’s capitulation to the US was made clear.

The decision split the ruling coalition, with the Social Democratic Party bolting, delivering a blow to cooperation between the parties in next month’s upper house election. Meanwhile, a Kyodo News poll showed that the LDP had finally managed to overtake the DPJ in terms of support, albeit with a dismal percentage in the low 20s. With discontent in the DPJ bubbling to the surface, Hatoyama decided to do the honorable thing…

The Futenma issue highlighted a fatal flaw in Hatoyama—he’s too much of a nice guy who wants to be liked by everyone. This is at least how veteran news commentator Akira Ikegami put it during a TV broadcast on Wednesday evening. Ikegami compared Hatoyama to another short-lived prime minister from outside the LDP, Morihiro Hosokawa, who in trying to please everyone kept changing his tune only to lose everyone’s support.

The dithering nice guy certainly seems closer to a true image of Hatoyama than the head-in-the-clouds eccentric portrayed by some foreign media.

But nice guy or not, at the end of the day, Hatoyama overshadowed any progress made by the DPJ in their ambitious goals through his failure to keep to his word on Futenma. The huge disappointment of his tenure is testimony to the great expectations of change he generated just nine months ago.