Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Hatoyama departs

It appears that the inevitable has happened: NHK reports that Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio has informed the DPJ leadership that he intends to step down.

Hatoyama, of course, has no one to blame but himself. In the nine months since he took office, he has failed as a manager of his cabinet, as the head of the DPJ, and as the leader of his country. Unable to make up his mind, he groped from blunder to blunder, before finally making a controversial decision on Futenma without doing any of the work to convince a skeptical public of its merits.

The good news is that his successor should, to a certain extent, have an opportunity to press the reset button, seeing just how much dissatisfaction with the prime minister was behind growing dissatisfaction with the DPJ. The bad news is that Hatoyama will leave his successor the poison pill of the latest agreement over Futenma, which the public overwhelmingly opposes and which appears to be more or less unimplementable, and with an uphill battle for the House of Councillors next month. And that's without mentioning lingering problems concerning the long-term future of the Japanese economy.

And so the US gets its wish: the "loopy" Hatoyama is gone, having overstayed his welcome and squandered whatever goodwill last year's election earned him. His successor — whoever he is (given that in all likelihood the DPJ will plan for a smooth transition to Kan or Okada) — will have to set to work immediately fixing the DPJ's standing with the public, starting with yet another attempt to fix Futenma in a way that satisfies Okinawans and the general public.  He'll also have to do what Hatoyama failed to do: make Ozawa serve the prime minister, another failure that ultimately doomed Hatoyama. The US, meanwhile, would be wise to give the new prime minister plenty of space this time around.


Dan Slater said...

I'm confused: if the voters don't support the new agreement (actually the old, LDP agreement), why did they not support HY in his efforts to find a (truly) new settlement? (Sorry, I can't read the Japanese language article you linked to).

Tobias Harris said...

My sense of it is that the issue went from being something of little concern to the public outside of Okinawa to a major public issue.

Perhaps the mass demonstrations earned the public's sympathy.

Dan Slater said...

Then the English-language press that I have been reading is guilty of a gross mis-reading. From my observation, the press has been stating that HY was earning nothing but voter contempt for his efforts to find a new settlement for Futenma, and thereby a new relationship to the US. But voter disapproval (pace your link) for the new settlement does beg the question: why did they not support HY in his efforts to create a new Okinawa agreement over the preceding months? It's rather ironic, to say the least! Maybe a matter of his personal style? Also, to what extent do you think MOF and MOFA undermined HY?

Gavan Gray said...

I haven't met any Japanese people today who weren't a little shocked by the sudden nature of the announcement. Okinawa still doesn't seem to be a major topic of discussion either. Perhaps someone with more background pull than the PM felt that the departure of the Shakai Minshuto would be too much of a swing back toward LDP rule.

PaxAmericana said...


What were voters supposed to do? The pressure for the old agreement came from places like the Pentagon or US and Japanese State Departments. The general view that Okinawans have gotten a bad deal for too long is a bit vague in terms of supporting the PM. Also, of course, it's more that the PM and the DPJ didn't seem to have their act together on things, not that their sympathy for Okinawans was misplaced.

English-language press can be very misleading. If nothing else, they can have just one side of an issue brought up. Al-Jazeera TV just had a nice bit about Futenma, but no-one mentioned that the deal may not actually be implemented.

Anonymous said...

Part of that was no doubt due to last night's meeting between Hatoyama and Ozawa, after which Hatoyama emerged and gave a thumbs up to the cameras -- something that just about everyone interpreted as Hatoyama's "success" in defending his decision not to step down.

Looks like that was a smoke screen (or Ozawa and Koshiishi bugged the hell out of him between last night and this morning).

Rhino said...

I am with Dan Slater on this one: Although I was getting a little impatient with Mr. Hatoyama lately, I thought he did make an effort to find a more satisfactory solution for Futenma than the old LDP decision had foreseen. I thought that the article on the BBC website (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/asia_pacific/10211314.stm) reflects quite accurately what happened the last few months. Apart from that, it might be for the best of the country to replace Mr. Hatoyama. He doesn't come across as an efficient decision maker, and that's what this country needs more than anything right now. There is plenty of repair work to be done after 50 years of purest capitalism, nepotism and the power game of bureaucrats. I hope, they will find an able replacement for Mr. Hatoyama.

Janne Morén said...

"...the press has been stating that HY was earning nothing but voter contempt for his efforts to find a new settlement for Futenma, and thereby a new relationship to the US."

No, the voter contempt stems from his utter failure, over many months, to actually find any kind of credible plan. He's been veering from one ill-considered plan to another like a drunken sailor, with repeated broken promises that this time he'll have it fixed.

The core problem has really been that the US has refused to even discuss any kind of change or amendment to the original plan. It's contributed to make Hatoyama look weak and impotent; a leader that doesn't even have a say about foreign forces in his own country. And it pretty much guaranteed that he would have to break any and all promise regarding Futenma from the start.

This is backfiring rather spectacularly on the US though. The current plan is dead. It's not going to be implemented. And the Japanese public has gone from largely apathetic on the issue of US bases to pretty solidly against. Any new establishment is going to run into the wall of public opinion. So, no new base at all, and using Futenma will become increasingly difficult. Not the result the US was hoping for, I suspect.

Tobias Harris said...


Seriously. Hatoyama does bear a lot of the responsibility for lacking the shrewdness to deal with a heavy-handed US (something his grandfather and others of that generation had no problem doing) and for having some plan of his own. It would have been easier to pushback if Hatoyama was working towards some goal. The government wasn't kidding when Hirano said it was a blank slate. Apparently they were referring to the PM.

I think Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy gets it right (and not just because he quotes me): http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/06/02/yukio_we_hardly_knew_ye.

Philippe said...

Fully agreed with what Janne Morén says...

I start to suspect that Hatoyama / Ozawa / and co. have been planning this exit strategy for while now, as a way to get even with some of the backstabbing and stubbornness from the US side. They seemingly give in to the US and generate a huge outcry, then resign. That way, they make sure that the issue won't go away for the upcoming election, giving some breathing space for the next government to be much harder against the US position.

Rhino said...

I am starting to think that a referendum might be a possible exit strategy regarding this never ending Futenma issue. If the majority of the Japanese people chose to move the American base out of Okinawa, or even Japan, surely the American government can't ignore such a decision. It would therefore not be the Japanese PM's decision, but the people's decision. And (my personal opinion), Obama of all presidents in the US, is probably the most likely to appreciate the people's will.

Anonymous said...

Hatoyama did not such a bad job - actually he did a pretty good job, very sad he resigned. In those couple of months he received more change than Obama did in his tenure up to now. And that as the shortest serving prime minister since Hata.

Janne Morén said...

"Seriously. Hatoyama does bear a lot of the responsibility for lacking the shrewdness to deal with a heavy-handed US [...] and for having some plan of his own. "

Of course. I wasn't clear; I took Hatoyamas deficiencies as a given here. And I guess it's not altogether impossible that the US counterparts completely misread him. The initial rebuff may have been meant as just an opening move for negotiations, and him caving on it may have taken them by surprise. But one the hard line had been set there was no way to change tack without losing credibility.

Anonymous said...

The manifesto should have included (in small print) boilerplate language about trying to relieve as many functions of Futenma off Okinawa as possible. The Japanese ministers of State and Defense then set up the American side for long term background negotiations. When it became clear they were not in a compromising mood, cut your losses and move on to issues that actually impact more than a tiny sliver of voters.

But Hatoyama's real vulnerability was rather than quietly forgetting some of his more outrageous promises regarding the US-Japan Security Alliance, he painted himself into a corner with multiple trips to the island, more ever-changing pledges that he could not possibly keep (promising resolution by May, etc) and generally compounding any initial errors exponentially.

Dragging the decision making process out to such a ridiculous extent in any endeavor gives the opposition time to smell blood. Always. And last but not least, keep your coalition partners on a short leash. :)

Fat Tony said...

"lacking the shrewdness to deal with a heavy-handed US"


What would a "shrewd" position in dealing with an American administration that was hell-bent on sticking to the 2006 "deal" on Futenma look like?

Tobias Harris said...

Not passing around promises like bad checks to various concerned parties would have been a start. Acting as if he had some idea of where he wanted to go with the issue would have been a start. Or, deciding from the beginning that his government would postpone making a commitment until after the HC election. Granted, these positions would have entailed actually standing up to the US pressure, but would that really have been too much to ask?

Fat Tony said...

"Not passing around promises like bad checks to various concerned parties would have been a start."

OK, but it's not just Hatoyama who is the "guilty" party here. Moving Futenma off Okinawa was a party policy until just before the election. And the party was pretty much united behind rejection of the 2006 deal. So why does Hatoyama not have anyone to blame but himself?

"Acting as if he had some idea of where he wanted to go with the issue would have been a start."

Fair enough, but as you yourself pointed out in September, Hatoyama was reassessing his stance and looked to be moving to a position of accepting the 2006 agreement. As you noted then, this was "good politics." Many, including yourself, also noted that foreign policy was not going to be as important to the DPJ as domestic policy. If Hatoyama was moving in the "right" direction on something that was not, from most accounts, about to cause too many problems, one must wonder why shrewdness on this point should be needed.

"Or, deciding from the beginning that his government would postpone making a commitment until after the HC election."

Not particularly shrewd. It would have resulted in an uproar from both the Okinawans and Washington, which would only have intensified the unpleasant dynamics Hatoyama was trying to work through quietly. That is, he would be in exactly the same position he finds himself today.

Look, I'm not saying that Hatoyama's leadership skills weren't part of the problem, especially after Futenma turned into a "smackdown" in October, which to your credit, you covered very well. In fact you wrote that harsh commentary at the time served to "illustrate why the DPJ's approach to the alliance is merited." And I'm not sure that a willingness to stand up to Washington after that time would have helped the situation much.

So, like Janne, my position is that if you are looking for blame for this sorry turn of events, there is plenty to go around.

Dan Slater said...

How guilty is the MOFA and MOD in undermining HY? Can we say they did not give them good advice?

Tobias Harris said...

Let's put it this way: if he made the same decision in October that he just made now, it would have been fine. The Okinawans would have been pissed, of course, but the issue would not have been the subject of national attention, Hatoyama wouldn't look like he was intent on destroying the alliance, and his government could have moved on to other things. And the SDPJ wouldn't have dared to leave a newly formed coalition over an issue that at the time was marginal.

In the choice between saying no to the US or saying no to the Okinawans, a quick no to the Okinawans would have caused some discomfort but the political system would have moved on. Once he decided that he would try to find a way to please everyone, however, the only way out of the situation was a bit of cleverness. I'm not entirely sure what that would entail, but anything would have been better than what he did. Maybe he should have convened a prime ministerial shingikai that would conveniently wait until September to report.

The US would have been pissed, at least it would have taken the issue off the front page for a while.

Dan, I can't say for sure, but I seriously doubt that MOFA or MOD undermined Hatoyama on this issue. If you have information to this effect I would love to hear it.

PaxAmericana said...

I kind of doubt that breaking a major promise early in the regime's days would have been so easy or "fine", as you put it. And I doubt the SDPJ saw it as a marginal issue, for that matter. That's why the almost desperate attempts were made for some kind of face-saving deal. The idea that they could just take the heat from Okinawans seems a bit optimistic to me. It's not 1985 any more, and the natives are restless.

Tobias Harris said...

Perhaps not easy, but easier? I would also dispute the idea of a "major promise."

Had he made decision quickly, while his government still enjoyed high approval, I think he could have escaped relatively unscathed.

Do you really think that SDPJ would rush to flee a coalition government that still enjoyed wide support? It's much easier to stand on principle when the prime minister's approval ratings are plummeting.

PaxAmericana said...


We'll just have to agree to disagree on the importance of the Okinawa issue. I think it was part of trying to present a new relationship with the US and East Asia. The DPJ had a lot they wanted to do, and picking a fight with many of their supporters probably seemed foolish at the time. Besides, they probably thought they could work with the US.

I was under the impression that Okinawa and the US military presence were to the SDPJ as the post office is to the Kokuminshinto. Having them agree to join the coalition in the first place may have required some kind of promise regarding Futenma. Not the outcome, but at least the process.

I also think the deal itself is a large part of the problem, which is why it took so long to get to first base - and it looks like the runner got picked off.

Fat Tony said...

"Do you really think that SDPJ would rush to flee a coalition government that still enjoyed wide support?"

Didn't you recently call their supporters ideologues?

Anyway, I respect this guy's opinion more than I do most of the talking heads:


Tobias Harris said...

Agreed. And he reads this blog, I might add.

This debate could go on and on, but I think at the very least there would have been a far more heated debate within the SDPJ over leaving in October 2009 versus leaving in May 2010.

Fat Tony said...

OK, let's end things there. I note that there are some pretty prominent Japan watchers in the States that have leaped, without much prompting, to deny through certain channels that the U.S. was "responsible," which makes me ponder whether they doth protest too much. But if Kan promises to stick to the new agreement, and manages to sideline Okinawa as an issue, it will all just be an intellectual exercise anyway. Well, until Okinawa presents itself as a problem again.