Features | Politics | East Asia

‘Japan a US Protectorate’

Veteran Japan watcher Karel van Wolferen talks to The Diplomat about the fall of Hatoyama and what to expect from Naoto Kan.

Were you surprised by the timing of Yukio Hatoyama’s resignation as prime minister?

Yes and no. I thought in December that by setting a deadline for a decision on the Futenma Air Station issue that he had condemned his administration. It’s a bit of a puzzle why he did it, but I think he did so because the pressure on him to set a deadline by the Foreign Ministry and his defence people—those two groups of bureaucrats are used to working with the United States—was enormous. And he thought he would be safe, because he counted on an opportunity to discuss this directly with Barack Obama in the context of a much broader plan of what to do in the future and what kind of strategy to follow as a genuine ally.

And Hatoyama had every right, of course, to think that he would get such an opportunity. But he didn’t. There were three attempts, as far as I know, to speak to Obama in a one-on-one serious discussion, and the people who were running the Japan show in Washington were dead set against it. Washington wanted to torpedo the Hatoyama government and they succeeded.

Why?

Washington wants an administration like they had before, that will do what they say. Although of course the Liberal Democratic Party wasn’t doing that—they had a way of shoving it ahead of them. The LDP had been postponing this whole base plan for six years and they were going to postpone it further. Why? Because it’s not implementable. That’s a very basic point, which the Tokyo-based media haven’t been sufficiently pushing because they haven’t been paying attention to Okinawa. The editors get all worked up, as of course they should, about a teenage girl getting raped, but the broader thing they stay away from.

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The most important thing to remember is that the LDP would not have carried out the Henoko relocation plan, because you can’t carry it out. It’s impossible. It also means that Naoto Kan’s cabinet could also be torpedoed by Washington. And it may well happen. Because Japan is not an ally of the United States—Japan is a protectorate.

What the LDP did last spring was to reconfirm the whole base issue knowing they were going to be defeated in the elections. So they dumped this in the lap of the DPJ. And what they did was then go to Washington, going around to whoever wanted to listen in Washington, and saying ‘these guys in the DPJ are amateurs, they’re inexperienced, they’re weak.’ And so they were there undermining the government in Japan.

When I spoke to you just after the Democratic Party of Japan’s landslide election win last year, you were extremely optimistic over the prospects for change in Japan.

That hasn’t changed. Kan is a very accomplished member of the DPJ, and he’s fully aware of the structural changes that must be made. If you asked me who among the top people of the DPJ is most aware of the structural changes, I’d say Kan and Ichiro Ozawa. And Kan is probably better positioned than Hatoyama to deal with the bureaucrats and work out a co-operative relationship, which is the most important political task for a Japanese political leader—how do you work out a relationship where you have political control over a bureaucracy that isn’t used to it? You can’t have war between bureaucrats and politicians.

Do you expect any shifts in direction under Kan?

Kan is very aware of what it means to have a cabinet-centred government. And one of the most interesting things when the DPJ took over is that the meetings of administrative vice ministers that had been held were stopped—a tradition of more than 100 years down the drain. But what you see is that these structural issues are discussed in a very oblique way in the Japanese media. The centre of discussion is policies and how different are they going to be from the LDP. So what you see now is that Kan, who has spent several months in the Finance Ministry, appears to be adopting what these ministerial officials wanted when Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister. And he’ll probably be swept along to some extent by the policy dynamic that comes in part from inside the ministries, from the bureaucrats. But what’s most important in his mind is this structural ideal that Japan must have a cabinet-centred government. It’s revolutionary for Japan.

One persistent question is how much influence Ichiro Ozawa will have over the Kan government. What do you expect?

Ozawa is tired. There’s been speculation about the state of his health for some time. He seemed to have recovered from this, but he still can’t attend a heavy meeting for more than 20 or 30 minutes, which is why if he’d become prime minister, which of course is what the original plan was, he would have transferred power to Kan or Hatoyama after half a year to 9 months or so. Those were the plans before he was forced to give up the presidency of the party (over a funding scandal). So he is old, and probably very fed up. But at the same time it’s his baby. Without him you wouldn’t have had a reformist party in Japan. Without him you wouldn’t have had the whole political upheaval in 1993. Without him you wouldn’t have had a DPJ. So I hope he’s working behind the scenes for the upper house elections.

Any other thoughts on the recent developments?

Twenty or 30 years ago there were quite a few American correspondents in Tokyo who had a pretty good historical background on the relationship, and they’d have put all this in perspective. But today, the American media gets what they write about this from informants in Washington. There are a couple of people in Tokyo, but they don’t bring the same kind of depth and understanding to it. Which means the story becomes the story that Washington wants people to see and read. And if you were the government in Washington, you’d want it to be like that. So in other words, there’s no countervailing interpretation of what’s going in Japan to what is coming out of Washington.

Karel van Wolferen is a Dutch writer and professor and author of ‘The Enigma of Japanese Power’.