Tokyo Notes

Who Hatoyama Could’ve Been

Yukio Hatoyama could have transformed Japan, says Japan Watcher Steve Clemons.

This is a guest entry by The Diplomat Editor Jason Miks

Announcing his resignation today, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said 'the public has gradually refused to hear me'. Certainly those that were still listening didn't like what they were hearing, with support for the Cabinet dipping below 20 percent according to a Kyodo News poll taken at the weekend, down from a dizzy 72 percent when he took office eight months ago.

So what was he trying to say and what was he trying to achieve? I asked Steve Clemons, a long-time Japan watcher and director of the New America Foundation's American Strategy Program, for his take on Hatoyama's resignation. Clemons is attending the Doha Forum and was responding on no sleep when I contacted him, so I appreciate him sharing thoughts.

He told me:

'Yukio Hatoyama had the chance to be Japan's Woodrow Wilson — an idealist and old-fashioned liberal – and make Japan's democracy real and sensitive to the expectations of its citizens. He was always a flawed leader — someone who was timid, uncertain at times until he had tough-to-believe flashes of boldness, like challenging the United States over the controversial Futenma Air Station in Okinawa.

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'He had the chance to do more politely what Germany's Gerhard Schroeder accomplished, which was to publicly re-establish his country's sovereignty in the eyes of the world. Schroeder moved Germany to a position where it could oppose the United States on some policies and support on most, rather than being a vassal of the American state on everything. In the long run, Schroeder
secured for Germany a much healthier relationship with the US. Hatoyama could have done the same — and have made himself as historically pivotal as his grandfather was in Japanese political history.'

So, what went wrong?

Clemons told me he felt that in the end, Hatoyama couldn't take the 'icy treatment' doled out by the White House and that Obama's question to Hatoyama asking 'Can I trust you?' on the base issue created a moral and political dilemma for Hatoyama that he was simply too weak to manage.

But Clemons suggested that the fallout has real implications for US-Japan ties. He said:

'The real political fall out from the United States crushing the tenure of a possibly exciting “Democracy 2.0” leader in Japan won't be known for some time. Much will depend on who succeeds Hatoyama. But what's certain is that US-Japan relations, which Obama was trying to secure with the base fiasco, are now going to become less popular — ironically just at the time of the signing 50 years ago of the US-Japan Security Treaty in June 1960.'