When the Democratic Party of Japan won the national election in August 2009, its eyes were already focused on the Upper House elections expected to be held in July 2010. The new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was very keen to maintain the DPJ’s popularity to win an Upper House majority.
But “Hapless Hato” has let the issue of the US base in Futenma, Okinawa, dominate his 9 month old administration, and managed to offend almost everyone in the process. Now Japan seems set to continue the pattern of a“revolving door” of prime ministers.
It all started with the DPJ manifesto which proposed several things: building a close and equal Japan-US relationship (meaning it is not equal now); developing an autonomous foreign policy strategy for Japan (meaning it is not now autonomous); proposing the revision of the Japan-US Status Forces Agreement; and moving in the direction of re-examining the realignment of the US military forces in Japan and the role of US military bases in Japan (meaning revising the agreement with the Americans regarding the future of their forces in Futenma, Okinawa). In election campaigning, Hatoyama even led the poor Okinawans to believe that he might move the American forces out of Okinawa.
All fine words. But they were just words of populism. Without any solid proposals or work behind them. As soon as he was elected, Hato jumped on the Okinawa issue, and ran with it. Hato did not seem to have realized that the current plans for Okinawa were the result of eleven years of difficult negotiation, and that there was basically no realistic alternative.
Okinawans who are dying to get rid of the rowdy Americans got all excited. And those mainland Japanese who want the country to take a more independent tack, or to become a full-fledged Asian country also had high expectations.
But this deeply upset the Americans, and also the many Japanese who work on security issues and know that the current plan makes a lot of sense, even if it is not perfect. So following several meetings with the Americans, including President Obama himself, Hato promised to solve the situation. He pleaded with Obama to trust him, only to breach that trust by missing self-imposed deadlines to solve the situation. The latest deadline is 31 May
By the beginning of this year, Hato was talking of carrying out “proper discussion” on the issue of the relocation of the Futenma air station, and “gleaning every bit of wisdom” possible in order to reinforce the Japan-US alliance, “a matter of Japan's security”. Why hadn’t all this been done before? While he was keen to reduce the burden on the people of Okinawa Prefecture as much as possible, he was very slow to recognize that no other Japanese Prefecture was willing to take on more Americans.
Fast forward to 4 May when Hato visited the Governor of Okinawa, Hirokazu Nakaima, and told him that “in order to ensure our country’s safety under the current Japan-US alliance, it would be difficult, in spite of our best efforts, to relocate all of the functions of Futenma Air Station outside of Japan or Okinawa”. On this occasion, he confessed that he understood for the first time the “deterrence value” of the US forces. What has Hato been smoking? Has he forgotten North Korea and the bullying of the Japanese navy by the Chinese navy in the East China Sea? Has he also forgotten that Japan has border disputes with all of its neighbours?
Result, Hato has now alienated much of Okinawa, which he had tried to seduce with his populist plan. Massive protests have been taking place on the island. In Japanese eyes, Hato's sin is betrayal. He essentially promised to reduce the American burden on Okinawa, and now he has backtracked, and appeared to cave in to the Americans. He seems to be cut from the same cloth as the LDP!
The latest news is that next week Japan and the US will announce a solution to this affair. It will likely be the original 2006 agreement, with a few minor modifications. But the damage is already done for Hato – both with everyone in Japan, and his American allies who think that he is an unreliable buffoon.
This is all a great tragedy for several reasons.
First, the number one priority of the DPJ government should have been getting the economy back in shape following decades of anemic growth and with debt being at astronomical proportions. There was no need for the new DPJ government to rush into the Futenma issue immediately upon their election.
Second, the government has made a slow but sure start on cleaning up shady governance -- like amakudari, public construction corruption, hereditary dynasty politics, unaccountability of public servants -- but this requires long term commitment and determination, not distraction. It has made too many enemies in the bureaucracy, including over Futenma, when it should have been co-opting the best bureaucrats to help them.
Third, a healthy and open public debate on Japan's security policies is necessary. But this needs to be very well prepared and would take some time, particularly in a country like Japan where the level of political literacy is still low. Too many Japanese people do not understand the great benefits of the US-Japan Alliance to a country which has an unpredictable China and a volatile North Korea next to it. And the Alliance is not just the cornerstone of Japan's security, but of the region's security. Without the US, most people fear an East Asian arms race and the risk of instability.
Fourth, the wasted political capital over Futenma has meant that Hatoyama has been too weak to handle effectively the shenanigans of DPJ Secretary-General Ozawa, and his own financial mishaps.
Fifth, Hatoyama has become an international political joke after a Washington Post journalist called him “loopy”. It took the Japanese a few days to realize that this was not a compliment! He is not “in the loop”, but very much out of it! Now the national Japanese media is in ‘Hato-bashing’ mode. Hato is on the ropes, and his government is in a state of chaos.
The DPJ is likely to do poorly in the upcoming Upper House elections, its popularity is below 20%. Hatoyama will have to be sacrificed, as will Ozawa … but after the elections. Who would want their jobs now?
So, a new team will start again. What's more, a complex coalition will need to be formed in the Upper House, implying continued political paralysis.
Is there any hope that a new government can return the Japanese economy to economic growth? Doubtful. The best growth spurt in recent decades was the mini-Koizumi boom of the early 2000s, but that was mainly led by exports to China (for too long, Japan has no domestic growth engines). Looking ahead, Japan cannot rely on exports to the US and Europe to drag it along. And deregulation and innovation, possible drivers of growth are not taken seriously by the government.
Is there any possibility that a new government can prepare the country for the rapid ageing that is in stall? Unlikely. Public finances are a mess, and Japanese are very worried for their pensions and health care. Even though the government has taken fright at the Greek crisis, this will not motivate it sufficiently enough to get its fiscal house in order.
Can we think of a new government being able to clearly define a role for Japan in the rapidly changing economic and political equation in East Asia? No way. Japan is hamstrung in its capacity to negotiate meaningful free trade agreements because of its agricultural protectionism and impenetrable non-tariff barriers. Free trade agreements are a very concrete, practical and meaningful form of cooperation
In the past, Japan’s foreign relations reputation was based on its social awkwardness and cheque-writing. But writing cheques is now a less viable proposition for bankrupt Japan.
It is little wonder that the Japanese seem very depressed these days!
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