Just last August, his party had won the elections for the lower house with a comfortable majority. Eight months later, his popularity, which stood at 70 per cent in September 2009, had dropped to 19.1 per cent.
Now, the Japanese have to face perhaps their most worrisome political crisis since the end of the war. However, putting the blame on the complex personality of the outgoing prime minister would mean underestimating its significance. In the case of the cabinet secretary, it was an extremely regrettable decision.
A courageous decision
In reality, Hatoyama’s decision is not exactly an act of abdication but is one of courage. He realised that if radical change is to come to domestic and international politics he had to step aside. He did it with humility, apologising to his colleagues and to the Japanese people for failing to put into action his party’s programme. No other prime minister had ever done this before him. “I made the decision believing my resignation would be in the national interest,” he said in his resignation speech.
The new prime minister, a man of value
DPJ Members of Parliament moved quickly. Two days after the prime minister’s resignation, they met to pick the new party chairman. Two candidates put forward their names, Finance Minister Naoto Kan, 63, and Shinji Tarutoko, 50. The first won with 291 against 129 for his rival.
A few hours later, the Japanese Diet elected Kan (pictured) as the new prime minister with 436 votes.
Speaking about the election, veteran politician Shizuka Kamei, 74, told journalists that he believed "a good prime minister was born."
“In a sense, Prime Minister Kan is a man who made his way up from the very bottom," Kamei said. “He places great importance on caring for the common people—I'm not worried at all" about his leadership abilities, he said.
"My first priority will be to regain the public's trust," Kan said in his speech at the general meeting of all 423 governing coalition lawmakers (including those of the DPJ as well as those Kamei’s Kokumin Shinto party).
After thanking Hatoyama and outgoing party secretary Ozawa for their leadership in bringing about a historic regime change in last August's Lower House election, Kan said that as prime minister, he would carry the torch passed on by Hatoyama.
The DPJ must rid itself of its “dual power” structure
If we refer to Ozawa as the former secretary that is because Hatoyama asked him to step down as well, not to join him in defeat but in order to allow the party and the government to rule more effectively. This is a second example of courage and wisdom on the part of Hatoyama.
Ozawa was elected to parliament in 1969 for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He was respected by important prime ministers, like Yashiro Nakasone, who held him in high esteem for his ability to manage inner party factional rivalries. In 1989, he became party secretary for a few years.
Authoritarian in his style, he made enemies of influential party leaders, and so he left to set up his own party, which eventually merged with the DPJ.
As a formed LDP secretary, he has great understanding of domestic and international politics, which, in addition to his decision-making skills, enabled him to become the right hand man of the prime minister. However, this gave rise to a dual power structure.
A disappointed electorate
Politically, Japan has changed a lot in the past decade. The LDP political machine has collapsed. Voters, especially in the cities, are increasingly conscious of their democratic power.
The DPJ’s impressive victory of last August is the result of this democratic sensibility. Voters threw out the LDP government, which managed government through a small clique, without transparency.
The DPJ instead had the credentials and the men and women to achieve an historic regime change. However, a man stood at the helm of the party and the government, Hatoyama, who, unsure of himself, relied on another man, Ozawa, who was quite sure of himself, but unable to engage others in a democratic dialogue. Among DPJ lawmakers, a group of 150, especially young and women, is known to be his staunch loyalists.
By asking Ozawa to quit the post of party secretary general, Hatoyama has laid the grounds for his successor to work unburdened by the dual power structure. This is no small feat. As new party leader, Kan suggested that Ozawa take a low profile for a while.
Two irreconcilable promises and friction with the United States
Hatoyama’s government fell because it mishandled the relationship with the United States, showing the diplomatic immaturity of Japan’s new ruling party.
Last November, Washington hosted a non-proliferation summit. During the formal dinner for participating leaders, the Japanese prime minister was seated beside US president Barack Obama. Hatoyama probably viewed the seating arrangement as an expression of friendship. If that is the case, he was mistaken. In reality, Obama was trying to express in diplomatic language US irritation towards Japan since Hatoyama took office in September.
Two factors explain US irritation. First, when Japan reiterated the fundamental importance of the US-Japan alliance, it stressed the equality of the two partners. This meant co-operation, but with conditions attached. In Hatoyama’s vision, Japan must be free to make its own foreign policy decisions, including vis-à-vis China. Second, during the election campaign last summer and then in the first part of September, Hatoyama promised voters that his government would get rid of the US base on Okinawa, something he could not do because the governments of Japan and the United States had agreed to move US Futemna military base from the centre of the island to another location in response to demands from the local population.
During the Washington dinner, the Japanese prime minister was heard telling the US president “Trust me!” It was easy for Japanese diplomacy to explain the statement. Obama had reminded his Japanese guest of the importance of the agreement, which could not be cancelled. In acknowledging that, Hatoyama promised that he would publicly announce a decision before the end of May. “Trust me!” committed the Japanese leader at a diplomatic (to Washington) and political level (to Okinawans, who for once were backed by most people on the Japanese mainland).
Two days before his self-imposed deadline, Hatoyama announced his government’s decision to fulfil the 2006 agreement, which is to move the US base from Futemna to Henoko Bay, always on the island of Okinawa.
For Okinawans, the decision was a betrayal because they will still have to put up with a strong US military presence. In fact, 18 per cent of the island’s territory is occupied by US bases, whilst 75 per cent of all US troops in Japan are stationed in Okinawa.
Mizuho Fukushima, president of the Socialist Party and a member of the coalition government, was dismissed from cabinet because she refused to accept the policy. Her party then quit the coalition government. At that point, Hatoyama had no option left but to resign for the sake of the nation.
A lesson to learn
An ideal cannot be realised if it is not connected to reality, wrote the Asahi newspaper in an editorial article. This crisis cannot be blamed solely on Hatoyama’s personality.
Ministers in the outgoing cabinet should have consulted former LDP prime ministers, foreign and defence ministers before making decisions concerning national security. The US-Japan security agreement of 2006 was worked out with reality in mind. The members of the outgoing government failed to consider this.
In a democratic system, the popular vote shapes government choices, the editorial noted. Everyone should re-examine the lack of interest regarding security issues in Japan. For the past 60 years, the Japanese have focused on the country’s economic development rather than on its security. If the current crisis teaches the DPJ but also the Japanese anything, it is the importance of national security policy and the dangers that lurk behind it. If this happens, it will not have been an entirely negative exercise.