Thoughts on Hatoyama’s resignation.


“Do you know how many Japanese prime ministers I dealt with when I was in office? Seven! Would you believe that?”
 – Bill Clinton.

Indeed, Japan sees prime ministers come and go as often as Madonna has sex. Last Wednesday, after only eight months in office, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced his resignation, citing his failure to fulfill his campaign promise of moving the American military base in Futenma out of Okinawa. He’s the fifth prime minister to resign in four years.

So what do I make of this significant yet seemingly random event in Japanese politics?

I have always said that what’s going on in Japan right now is, to some extent, similar to the situation in Thailand: a battle between the Establishment and the forces of change. While in Thailand the battle between the Royalists and the Bangkok elite on one hand and the rural poor on the other is bloody and has far-reaching societal implications, in Japan the people aren’t even aware of the battle. To be sure, it has less dramatic implications; but nonetheless it is a battle that could, for the first time since the Meiji restoration, cause a tectonic shift in the nation’s political alignment.

In Japan, “the Establishment” is the alliance between the elite bureaucracy (called Kasumigaseki after the district in Tokyo where ministerial offices are located); the traditional, mostly hereditary politicians who make up the powerful Liberal Democratic Party (LDP); and the Keiretsu, or the big businesses that control the nation’s economy. In this alliance, the Cabinet and the Diet serve only as a rubber stamp to the all-powerful bureaucracy, the members of which are, upon their retirement from the government, given lucrative positions in big companies, making them arguably beholden to corporate instead of national interests. True, this alliance has made Japan the economic giant it is today; but it has also, at best, ruled the country in a manner that both benefited the industrialists through protectionism and hereditary politicians of the LDP through the pork-barrel system and, at worst, incubated bureaucratic corruption.

On the other hand, “forces of change” mostly refer to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which believes that the old system is no longer responsive to the new challenges facing the nation, which is now entering its third consecutive “lost decade.” This party, elected in an unprecedented landslide last year that ended the fifty-year almost ubroken rule by the LDP, believes that Japan must be a truly functioning Westminster democracy. This means the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, and not the unelected bureaucrats, must be calling the shots and that governance must emphasize transparency instead of bureaucratic secrecy.

I would therefore frame my thoughts on the twin resignations of Hatoyama and the shadow shogun of Japan, DPJ Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa, based on this larger battle. I believe the twin resignations are a boost for the Establishment and a blow to the reformists.

The re-negotiation of the transfer of the Futenma Air Base was a major campaign promise for Hatoyama. He considered it part and parcel of his and his party’s aim of having a more equal relationship with the United States.  And aside from the ideological, there was also the political considerations: the DPJ’s junior but important coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, had made it clear that they will not settle for anything less than a transfer of the base outside Okinawa. Kasumigaseki, on the other hand, believed the re-negotiation would severely damage the US-Japan relationship, which it  considers to be the main pillar of Japan’s foreign policy.

Hatoyama was stubborn. Declaring that he was staking his political career on the issue, he went around for months trying to look for alternative locations for the American base. Futenma became the national issue.

And on this issue, Kasumigaseki found a formidable ally in Washington. As far as the Americans were concerned, the Futenma question was no longer a question; the US had already struck a deal with the LDP on the base’s transfer to nearby Nago and it expects the new government to honor that deal. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a visit to Tokyo, practically admonished Hatoyama to honor this previous agreement. The Obama administration, with the connivance of the Japanese Foreign Ministry mandarins, pressed Hatoyama very hard on this, even to the extent of humiliating him during the nuclear security summit in Washington. In that summit, Obama repeatedly snubbed Hatoyama’s requests for a one-on-one meeting. Indeed, neither Vice President Biden nor Secretary Clinton faced Hatoyama; he had to settle for the Secretary of Energy! The Japanese Embassy, which spends generously on lobbying firms in Washington, did nothing to help the Prime Minister get that Obama meeting; heck, it didn’t even publicize Hatoyama’s important but largely ignored inputs in the summit!

Alas, Hatoyama found himself without any other options. No other prefecture was willing to shoulder the burden of hosting the American base. Kasumigaseki and Washington prevailed, Hatoyama was forced to stick with the original US-LDP agreement. Okinawa was outraged and the Prime Minister was forced to dismiss the head of the Social Democrats from the Cabinet, thereby weakening the DPJ-led coalition. The nation got pissed off, for the Prime Minister has wasted its time. Hatoyama’s political capital has been totally depleted.

In the end, the scorecards were raised: The Establishment- 1; The DPJ- 0

It is worth noting, however, that Hatoyama’s loss on the Futenma question is the result less of Kasumigaseki’s and Washington’s political maneuvers and more of the Prime Minister’s incompetence. This incompetence has been seen early on when Hatyama could not even control his own Cabinet and was completely over-shadowed by Ichiro Ozawa, but it became even more glaring when Hatoyama set a deadline of Futenma’s resolution without even crafting a strategy to attain it. Indeed, the Prime Minister didn’t even present an alternative relocation plan to counter the original US-LDP plan.

And this incompetence has disastrous consequences to DPJ’s effort to establish change.

The disappointment of the country over Hatoyama’s handling of the Futenma question has weakened the prospects of the DPJ in next month’s Upper House elections. This has forced Ichiro Ozawa, the man responsible for bringing the DPJ to power and whose political savvy is unmatched in Japan, to step down as well. Ozawa is facing a money scandal that is for all intents and purposes a joke but a convenient one for Kasumigaseki, which controls the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Under ordinary circumstances Ozawa wouldn’t have resigned, but the Futenma fiasco has dealt the party so severe a blow that it needs a major make-over, or at least a semblance of it, if it wants to at the very least minimize the projected losses in the polls this July. (Update: The LDP-led opposition has won the elections for the House of Councillors, dealing the DPJ a major blow)

The resignation of Hatoyama is one thing, that of Ozawa’s is another. The latter has a more serious implication for the DPJ’s quest to dismantle the Kasumigaseki establishment.

Many people in Japan dislike Ozawa because of his image as a shrewd political tactician who thrives in the backrooms. But he is a political genius who has dedicated his entire career to the cause of change. He is arguably the only one in the DPJ capable of outmaneuvering the Establishment.

To be sure, if only because majority of the neophytes in the Diet are loyal to Ozawa for recruiting them in last year’s electons, Ozawa would remain to be influential. But as to whether he would continue to pull strings from behind the scenes, I can only speculate. I personally believe he should, although it would be difficult for him now to do wonders for the DPJ for he would have to strike a careful balance between appearing to be politically-retired in order to project an image of a “new” DPJ on one hand and helping steer the party’s election strategies on the other.

And so with the resignation of Ozawa, another set of scorecards: The Establishment- 2; The DPJ- 0

The challenge now is for the DPJ to pick a new leader who has the capability to at least minimize the damage Hatoyama’s incompetence has brought. Due to the scarcity of heavyweights in the DPJ, serious contenders have been narrowed down to only three, all of them former presidents of the party: Transportation Minister Seiji Maehara, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Finance Minister Naoto Kan. Maehara has shown his incompetence before when, under his leadership, fabricated evidence were raised by the DPJ against the LDP during the Livedoor scandal. Okada, on the other hand, is tied to the Futenma failure as Hatoyama’s foreign minister.

Kan, the rightful front-runner, is seen as relatively clean and is perhaps the best poster boy for change. If he becomes prime minister, he will be the first one in recent memory to have no hereditary ties to a former prime minister. His change credentials include his previous crusade to expose the bureaucratic cover-up of tainted HIV blood making their way to the Health Ministry’s blood banks, which marked him for political death by Kasumigaseki.

Unfortunately, it takes a lot more than a clean image to pursue the DPJ’s agenda for change. Although unlike Hatoyama Kan has had previous administrative experience, wrestling with the Establishment would require an awful lot more than managerial capabilities.

The question is, Kan he do it?

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