Hatoyama's Hard Road for 2010

Just about four months in office, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has paved an unnecessarily difficult path for himself and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) for 2010 as a crucial upper house election approaches this July. As one Diet aide told me during my recent trip to Japan, Hatoyama has chosen a hard road (ibara no michi) and the most vexing policy issues seemingly as a show of personal development rather than political astuteness. A reoccurring theme I heard in Japan was that Hatoyama is not demonstrating leadership skills. As a result, support for his cabinet has dropped below 50 percent.

One example of this leadership problem has been Hatoyama's decision to try to hastily fulfill his campaign promises and his party "manifesto" rather than attempting to compromise with his country's various constituencies or stand up to coalition partners. He has thus painted himself into a corner . Ironically, as one think tank executive told me, the party's platform contained some ideas that were irrelevant to most Japanese people and some that were untested with the leaders of industry and government. This executive complained about Hatoyama's government budget public vetting process, which he likened to a Maoist charade, and the administration's soft approach toward China, which he felt embarrassed Japan's hardliners. Hatoyama's ambitious but laudable targets on carbon emissions and recent plan for economic growth were met with skepticism by the business community. Hatoyama's personal leadership skills are not matching with his high ideals .

My trip coincided with a controversial visit by the presumptive next president of China Xi Jinping with Emperor Akihito. The visit caused a stir with conservatives and the imperial family because it ignored scheduling protocol. On my way to a meeting with business executives in downtown Tokyo, I witnessed something I have never seen: Right-wing sound trucks were protesting Xi Jinping's visit by blasting messages in Mandarin rather than Japanese.

Although right-wing protests should not be considered a barometer of Japanese public sentiment, it should be noted that Japan is aging and in this way becoming more conservative. This episode also does illustrate another problematic theme of the Hatoyama administration so far: While the new government has righteously focused on helping the vulnerable in Japanese society, especially given Japan's relatively high poverty rate, it also has consistently managed to alienate powerful people in the bureaucracy, business, associations, media, and the U.S. alliance--creating what Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini call a "no-party system" in which new faces in the coalition have few connections with the business elite.

Meanwhile, Hatoyama has become beholden to his coalition partners who are not after his best interests. As one executive told me, Mizuho Fukushima of the socialist party only cares about the bottom of Japanese society, while Shizuka Kamei of the People's New Party only cares about himself. Ultimately, many Japanese see Hatoyama's prime minister-ship as doomed because he is under the thumb of the DPJ's iconoclastic chief Ichiro Ozawa and is therefore unable to take real leadership.

Several people lamented Ozawa's recent direction of backroom bullying, away from his more principled past when he urged Japanese people to rely less on government and more on themselves. When he recently visited China with a Diet delegation, Ozawa bizarrely declared he was the commander of the People's Liberation Army. "The tail is wagging the dog," as Doshisha professor Noriko Hama put it in the New York Times and if Hatoyama fails to get control, the economy will backslide. The economy has already slid to its lowest level since 1991.

The DPJ's uncomfortable coalition has resulted in disagreements over the government budget and tension with the U.S. alliance. Despite campaign promises to cut waste, Kamei has urged Hatoyama to expand a government budget that is set to reach a record $1 trillion, sparking fears over Japan's debt-to-GDP ratio, which at 181 percent, is already the highest among industrialized nations. I happened to catch Kamei's mid-December press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan where he taunted Hatoyama and warned "so long as the CIA does not assassinate me, things will not go back to the way things were before, when Japan simply followed America's lead."

Gaffes from Japanese politicians are not unheard of but it is rare to come from cabinet members. Kamei's strategy appears to make the coalition so awkward for Hatoyama that he has to meet Kamei's demands on expanding social welfare. With a declining population and economic doldrums, the Japanese have long wondered if they were becoming a marginal player in the region or a "sick man of Asia," but with rhetoric like this cabinet's, the international image is more akin to Asia's dictatorships in Cambodia and North Korea, one executive said.

Several twists loom in the summer upper house election for Hatoyama. Most of all, electoral success will prove essential to the DPJ in regaining control of the agenda since poor results would only prolong the party's reliance on its coalition partners, making it more likely that it will continue to suffer from the perceived leadership problem. But until the election, Hatoyama must continue to accommodate his coalition partners on issues like the budget and the U.S. alliance but, in a catch-22, this accommodation is leading some voters to conclude that he is simply dithering on important issues.

Fortunately for the DPJ, its popularity remains higher than the opposition's and Hatoyama has been loosening up on his promises. But the party may calculate that its best path would be to replace Hatoyama. Speculation has already emerged over possible candidates: Deputy Prime Minster Naoto Kan is said to be a savvier politician, while younger transport minister Seiji Maehara has gained notoriety in his management of the restructuring of ailing Japan Airlines. The snag in this strategy would be that voters may conclude that the DPJ is no different from the previously-ruling Liberal Democratic Party and little change has taken place since last summer's elections after all. But if the DPJ fails, an already gloomy Japan will get gloomier. If the DPJ can't take off within four years, one of Japan's top public intellectuals Masaru Tamamoto told me, "Japan will be in a first class seat down the drain."