Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hatoyama is the problem

Watching the shambles that the Hatoyama government has become, I went back into the archives and found the post I wrote on the occasion of Hatoyama Yukio's being selected as DPJ president in May 2009.

Called "The DPJ bets on Hatoyama," I stressed the risk associated with choosing Hatoyama to succeed Ozawa Ichiro, noting in particular Hatoyama's history of indecisive leadership, poor decision-making skills, and over-reliance on those around him for guidance.
The arc of his career also suggests that Hatoyama lacks a certain toughness — not a problem that Ozawa has — which will be indispensable if Hatoyama is to become prime minister and will have to be responsible for keeping the DPJ united, coaxing coalition partners, and overriding a recalcitrant bureaucracy. These tasks would be hard enough for Ozawa. Will Hatoyama be any more adroit?
The answer, it seems, is no.

I don't fault the Hatoyama government for taking on a tough issue like Futenma or postal privatization. After all, signaling changes of course on these policies is a good way to show how Westminster-style reforms can promote cabinet-led policy changes, making elections meaningful. But I fault the Hatoyama government — I fault the prime minister — for failing to exercise the least bit of control over his cabinet and his ruling party, making a total mess of these policies and others and dragging the government's approval ratings into dismal terrain. Taking on the US over Futenma demands finesse, subtlety, a deft hand in cabinet, and a clear media strategy. Not only has Hatoyama failed to keep his ministers on message on Futenma, he has struggled to develop a message in the first place.

Some might argue that the leadership vacuum in the DPJ-led government is a function less of the prime minister's failings than irreconcilable divisions within the DPJ or within the ruling coalition. While it is difficult to say for certain, I would argue that those divisions matter only insofar as Hatoyama has left a vacuum in the highest reaches of his government, which some ministers (i.e. Kamei Shizuka) have exploited from the earliest days of the Hatoyama government. Were Hatoyama capable of exercising his power, he would have an easier time controlling his ministers and pushing back against Ozawa.

Given the extent to which the government's problems rest on Hatoyama's shoulders, I have to ask the same question posed by Michael Cucek: Why do the Seven Magistrates not act? Cucek's logic — that they are hedging, ensuring easy conquest of the party in the wake of an Upper House election defeat, survival in case of victory — is compelling, but it also entails huge risks on their part. As the LDP learned, the public can be particularly fickle when it votes for the Upper House. I can imagine that a big enough defeat for the government could set in motion events that would go beyond a mere leadership change within the DPJ. As such, If Hatoyama cannot find a solution to the Futenma problem that satisfies all actors, I would think that the time would be ripe for a cabinet rebellion.

A new prime minister would still have an uphill battle to score a victory in July, but if he (or she) were to be in a position to lead — to set an agenda and force ministers and party to adhere to it, or at least to debate within clearly delineated bounds — the DPJ's fortunes would likely improve. The party's agenda, after all, isn't the problem. It's leadership. 

For years polls have shown that the value the public wants in its leaders is "the ability to get things done." I am convinced it's why Koizumi Junichiro enjoyed the support he did. And at this point it's the only way the DPJ can save itself.


sigma1 said...

Many of the ideas here have been bouncing around my head also in the last wee while, so all good.

But, for me some of this also seems to be due to core concepts and political practices missing from the Japanese political mindset which complicates the engineered drive towards a Westminister style system.

Party discipline, the primacy of the Cabinet over the party, or the primacy of the executive over the bureaucracy, and perhaps most importantly, the Collective Responsibility of Cabinet etc. Seemingly, it is not all as self-evident as some of us would like to think.

I feel that the lack of these "constitutional" practices complicates things - on top of the bad leadership (weak in public, too ironfisted internally - should be the other way around!).

For a simple example, recently we have had an MP in NZ speak out against her party, the ruling party, on an issue of mining. This speaking out was discussed before hand and the party acknowledged that on this particular issue it was appropriate and came to a mature agreement to disagree. It has not meant the MP has waged an all out war against the party itself - a respectful decision to oppose the government on the matter. And this kind of thing is not all that unusual.

It would only become problematic, if a Cabinet Minister did the same. (Coalition ministers outside cabinet have a bit more freedom).

I guess the thing that has been bothering me is that all of these constitutional norms have evolved over time in many of the countries concerned. I think at the very least the fact this kind of change has been "engineered" probably means it will take some time at the very best for these kind of concepts to become common and common sensical practice.

But also, we may oneday have to ask ourselves- is the Westminister parliamentary system appropriate for Japan/Japanese cultural norms?

Robert said...

Dear Tobias...nicely put. I very much agree with you that the Party Platform is not the problem. I strongly feel that the Party's agenda (Manifesto) is what the typical Japanese want but the leadership's vacillation is causing buyers’ regret.

I think Ozawa (with all of his baggage) could have been more favorable than Hatoyama is now because I strongly feel that Ozawa would have kept the Cabinet inline and the Party marching to Manifesto's beat.

Personally, though Koizumi was a strong leader, I think that he helped to destroy Japan's social fabrics trying to emulate the U.S. too much.

MTC said...

Mr. Harris -

Let me add my own doubts to sigma1's about the appropriateness of the Westminsterization program. If there were character traits I felt were so lacking that they had to be imposed through party institutions, discipline and obedience would not be the ones at the top of my list.

Furthermore, Westminsterization seems the imposition upon the DPJ of a solution for the problems of the LDP. The action may be prophylactic or preemptive; it might also just be misguided.

apple407 said...

Leading the list of nations with “strong government and decisive leadership” are
N. Korea, China and Russia. All the “informed” discussions seem to evade this problematic and obvious fact.

Anonymous said...

Hatoyama a problem eh, maybe but the real problem is the bureaucracy! Yes those guys!

This man has actually some good ideas, others that are not so great! These ideas need to actually get off the ground seriously!
Several things need serious solutions!
Birth rate
Aging population issue--a healthy balanced population needed
Raise the minimum wage!
Sure there is more to add...

But I strongly stress It's these guys who are the actual core of the whole problem to begin with the bureaucracy and the cookie cutter mentality...
It's that top down decision making that's causing this whole mess believe me!
This is absolutely why Hatoyama is simply powerless
, puppet on a string, a lapdog and spineless.
With this problem like it's some bad disease no wonder people are really suffering and are poor! This is just very sad!

And Hatoyama-san simply has far more money than Bill Gates and God, he's lucky he's major wealthy and life is all good! Wish I was wealthy man

I seriously hate the fact that people in Japan can't choose their leaders! That's just plain unfair and very wrong!

Anonymous said...

By the way, I mean it's time we have smart people who can make the good ideas become a reality which I meant to add and to clarify on that.

So far, the good ideas have been swept under the carpet lately..
Koizumi-san for example had some good ideas too and look what happened to them, ideas need to roll and turn good ideas into actual substance!

Gray Ship said...

Another point is that the Upper House in Japan is a genuine election. In the UK, the upper house is almost powerless, and appointed by the government power. In a true Westminster system, the ruling would party would not have to worry about the summer elections.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tobias, Hatoyama a weak leader? He just prepared us for more surprises to come.

"Hatoyama backpedals on coming up with Futemma plan by the end of March".

TOKYO, March 29 (AP) - (Kyodo)—Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama backpedaled Monday on his earlier promise to come up with a government plan for the relocation of a U.S. Marine base in Okinawa Prefecture by the end of March, saying that his government is not legally bound by it.

"There is no legal basis on which we must come up with a government plan this month," Hatoyama told reporters, while saying that he wants to come up with a plan "soon" to negotiate with the United States.

Japan is exploring alternatives to an existing plan to relocate the Futemma Air Station within the southernmost prefecture and Hatoyama has said the government will settle the matter by the end of May.

Rhino said...

To be honest, I was very happy the day Mr Hatoyama and his party won the elections. I was tired of the irresponsible behaviour of the Liberal Party over, at least, the past 20 years.
The way it looks now, not many of the hard-working Japanese will see a pension in the future and a lot of them will lose their life savings. I think anyone who denies this is a dreamer. And only one party is, at this stage, to be blamed for that: the LDP.
But I have to admit that Mr Hatoyama is starting to disappoint me. How can it be so difficult to make a final decision on this US military base in Okinawa? And how can you promise to make a decision by the end of this month and then turn around and say something along the lines of "I have no legal obligation to make a decision"? Well, Mr Hatoyama, you don't have an obligation to be the prime minister either.
But I think I might have something constructive to say as well.
I would like to make a suggestion which the government might want to think about, even if a lot of people probably don't like it:
I am very concerned about this public debt problem. My thoughts on this are that Japan should look to Germany for a possible solution. Germany introduced the solidarity tax of 5% in order to finance the re-unification of the East and West. Why can't Japan introduce a solidarity tax, for the sole purpose of paying back the public debts? I am thinking of 1% or 2% and only for households which earn in excess of 10,000,000 yen per year. Of course, we can not afford to take more money out of the pockets of those who haven't got much to spend anyway. Where would that leave the domestic demand? But I don't think people with an income of 10 million or more will change their spending habits a lot because they find 1% less on their paycheck. But, of course, the government has to show the self-discipline to really use this money to reduce government debt, and not just fill some government officials coffers with it. Mr Hatoyama, get your act together and live up to your voters expectations, please.

PaxAmericana said...

Is there any possibility of a Futenma resolution that "satisfies all players"? If there were, it would have been done years ago.

I'm also a little unsure of your call for keeping everyone on message. Isn't there a contradiction between the idea of a more open government than in the days of the LDP and a concentration of power at the top?

Tobias Harris said...


That sounds good in principle, except that the reality of LDP rule was decisions made behind closed doors because there were so many actors who had to be brought on board in order to make policy.

When what the guy on top (or the college of guys on top) says goes, government becomes fairly transparent.

Anonymous said...


"How can it be so difficult to make a final decision on this US military base in Okinawa?"

There won't be any decision on the Futenma problem until the general elections in July. If the DPJ gets a majority in the Upper House (which the stalling on this issue ironically helps put in doubt), Hatoyama can act with impunity. But at this point he needs a coalition government. Not finding a solution to US forces that satisfies all actors sets the stage for a cabinet rebellion.

Anonymous said...

shambles? That is somewhat blunt, not to mention wrong. The DPJ is out to gut the LDP by stealing the middle ground, hence the ambivalence over JA and JP. Hatoyama's role is to be the glue between the different factions, Ozawa's role is to deliver the results. The LDP is gone for a decade at least.

Tobias Harris said...


That's an odd way to describe what's happening. "Stealing" the middle ground? I guess that's happening, although I'm not quite sure what the middle ground is in Japanese politics these days.

Gut the LDP? I guess, but the LDP is doing a fine job of gutting itself without the DPJ's help. And I've long worried about Ozawa's goal of destroying the LDP. The job of a government is to govern, not to conduct vendettas. And the destruction of the LDP is not good for Japan.

Hold together the DPJ's factions? Again, maybe so, but I would be more impressed if he could command the party's factions and lead. (I should add that I don't think the DPJ's factions are serious obstacles to governing — which is why I look to Hatoyama instead.)