from Asia Unbound

Prime Minister Hatoyama’s Surprise

June 02, 2010

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Diplomacy and International Institutions

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/POOL

Yesterday’s resignation of Yukio Hatoyama as Japan’s prime minister was swift and complete. Prime Minister Hatoyama cited two reasons for his decision to step down. The first was his failure to fulfill a campaign promise to move the U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma off Okinawa, and the resultant collapse of his coalition with the Social Democrats. The second was his personal responsibility – along with that of the party’s secretary general Ozawa Ichiro – for ruining the party’s reform effort with suspicions of old school money politics.

The past eight months have been a challenge for U.S. alliance managers, who were unprepared for the unpredictability of the day-to-day relationship with Japan’s new government. The historic transfer of power was broadly praised as a significant step in the longer term process of political change in Japan. The dominance of the LDP had long seemed an anachronism, but the transition process last year created new challenges. The priorities of the new DPJ Cabinet with respect to alliance goals were unclear, and the new policy team lead by Prime Minister Hatoyama seemed to have difficulty forging a consensus.

But more than anything, the inherent difficulty of U.S. military basing in Okinawa took the new DPJ government by surprise. The early U.S. insistence on the implementation of the plan agreed upon in 2006 to construct a new runway in Henoko made a full policy review difficult, and in many ways pushed the new government into a series of decisions it was unprepared for. The DPJ had committed itself to reconsidering the plan devised under the LDP to relocate the Marines within Okinawa prefecture. Yet the former opposition party did not have full access to the policy rationales for that choice, nor did it fully understand the political realities of building a consensus on policy change within Okinawa. Arguing for dispersing the Marines’ operations to other localities in Japan, Prime Minister Hatoyama made a series of public appeals to communities in Kagoshima prefecture and other locales, instantly prompting public rejections of his appeals for help. At the same time, Okinawa residents also rejected his efforts to find a compromise option that included building a facility within their island, and the political movement rejecting the plan to construct a runway within Okinawa gained significant momentum.

Today, the DPJ’s first Cabinet has resigned in disarray. Hatoyama has taken responsibility for the party’s difficult first eight months of governance. On Friday, the DPJ will select a new leader, and a policy team will be formed for a second effort to govern Japan. This second chance at meeting the party’s promise to offer Japanese voters a viable alternative approach to solving the country’s economic and social problems will likely make or break the DPJ. It is too early to know how the lessons learned by the Hatoyama Cabinet will be internalized by the party, but with Futenma so visibly on the list of mistakes made, the U.S. government will also need to reassess the past eight months and consider the lessons learned for future alliance cooperation. With the Korean peninsula becoming less predictable, it will be imperative for Washington and Tokyo to renew their efforts, build trust and set forth an agenda for the U.S.-Japan alliance that reassures both countries and the region, that the difficulties surrounding Futenma can be overcome.