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Hatoyama's enduring legacy

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Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama came to power in September 2009, and by early June thus year he was gone again -- brought down by a minor corruption scandal and the massive confusion he created regarding the US/Japan Alliance.  Has he left an enduring legacy?

One of the key elements of Hatoyama's platform was his proposal to move all U.S. Marine Corps air units off the island of Okinawa.  Okinawa makes up 0.6 per cent of Japan's land area, and accommodates 74 per cent of the US bases in Japan, including Futenma Air Station.  Okinawa's burden has been a sore point for a very long while.  But this would have broken a 2006 U.S.-Japan pact negotiated by the former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government.  He also wanted to create a more equal and independent relationship with the US.

Needless to say, this is a complex issue.  The American security shield is not only critical for Japanese security, but also for maintaining peace and security in all of East Asia.  The previous (LDP) government had worked for years to arrive at the current agreement regarding the positioning of the US forces.  No other part of Japan is suitable or would take them.  More generally regarding independence from the US, we cannot forget that Japan also has a pacifist constitution, which restricts it to having only "self defense forces" whose activities are strictly limited.  What's more, Japan only spends 1 per cent of GDP on defense, one-quarter of what the Americans spend.

All that said, the US/Japan Alliance does need to be reviewed, and reengineered for the 21st century.  A long and considered national debate on the issue is called for.  Hatoyama never made the effort to do this, and he was probably incapable of doing so.  His proposals smacked of half-baked populism.

Hatoyama spent much of his premiership spinning round in circles between the Americans, the Okinawans and his own government, trying to make everyone happy at the same time.  Result, paralysis, confusion, indecision and finally a deep apology to the Okinawan people because he could not keep his promise to them, and that they were stuck with the Americans.

By the end of the Hatoyama premiership, the irony was that the American forces seemed more firmly ensconced in Okinawa than they ever were.  Hatoyama's confused handling of the affair has probably confirmed that there is probably no alternative to the Americans being the burden of Okinawa.

The reassurance and deterrent power provided by the American troops was confirmed by two other factors. 

First, when North Korea sank a South Korean naval patrol vessel "Cheonan" which was still in South Korean waters, all were reminded just how fragile security is in East Asia.

Second, the Chinese Navy has become even more aggressive in its bullying of the Japanese Navy in the East China sea.  At the same time, ever the dreamer, Hatoyama was discussing with President Hu Jintao of China his idea to turn the East China Sea into a Sea of Fraternity.

The new Prime Minister Naoto Kan has confirmed that he will abide by the 2006 U.S.-Japan pact.  Only one problem, the Okinawans.  They are bound to make massive protests as work gets underway to implement this pact.  But clever politics could solve this.  While 40 per cent of Okinawans are against the American bases, another 40 per cent support them.  They are after all a boost to Okinawa's anemic economy.  So, a mixture of diplomacy and cash should solve the problem.   

Back to Hatoyama.  It seems quite clear that he is a nice and sincere man.  In his parting message, he said "I would like to express my gratitude to the people of Japan for bringing about the change of government and giving me the opportunity of marching at the forefront of the new politics. You have my heartfelt apologies for resigning at the middle of our journey."

But as nice as he is, it is also clear that he was never fit for the job of Prime Minister -- too idealistic, indecisive and confused.  With politicians like this Japan may well indeed be better off outsourcing its defense to the Americans.



Yukio Hatoyama's "Yu-Ai" -- Message from the Prime Minister.  “Toward a New Japan"