News / Asia

Familiar Pattern Continues in Japan Politics

It was a familiar sight - a Japanese prime minister, displaying more emotion than previously seen during his brief and tumultuous tenure, announcing for the good of his party and country that he was stepping down. This latest turn of the revolving door at the prime minister's office, however, is part of decades of political tradition.

"The public has gradually refused to hear me. It's a shame and I'm solely to blame for it,'' lamented Yukio Hatoyama in the latest rendition Wednesday morning as tears glistened in his eyes.

He resigned in large part because of criticism over his failure to keep his campaign promise to move a U.S. air base off the island of Okinawa. After months of study and talks with the United States, last month Mr. Hatoyama concluded the idea wouldn't work.

Mr. Hatoyama is the fourth Japanese prime minister to resign in four years. He stayed in office a mere eight months, still a longer stint that some of his predecessors.

"This instability hurts Japan in the short term for the economic, fiscal and aging challenges," says Yu Serizawa, president of Forma Corp., a Tokyo consulting firm. "We need strong and stable political leadership which we've been missing for some years."

Mr. Hatoyama's successor will be the 33rd prime minister since Japan's World War II defeat in August 1945.

By contrast, the major Western democracy usually labeled as the most unstable in terms of administration, Italy, has seen 25 men serve prime minister in that period, although several were in office for repeated non-consecutive terms.

Despite the number of prime ministers, Japan remains economically and politically steadfast. Economic policy largely is under the tight control of government bureaucrats in what some economists and political analysts consider a cozy nexus with industrialists and bankers. It is a tradition that began with the rise of Japan's "zaibatsu" business plutocrats in the 19th century.

Although the American occupation leaders dismantled the zaibatsu system after Japan's defeat, those traditional ties were reconstituted on a less formal basis, driving the country's amazing economic recovery.

Since 1945, Japan's foreign policy and defense planning largely has been aligned with that of Washington. The foundation of that relationship is a solid commitment to the U.S.-Japan defense alliance, including the large U.S. military bases in the country - about half of them on Okinawa.

Although recent prime ministers have spoken of closer ties with Japan's neighbors, especially giant China, lingering historical animosities and suspicions about future geopolitical goals have yet to upset the status quo.  

One reason there has been little change in policy is that most of Japan's leaders share the same party lineage, and often share blood ties. Almost all prime ministers came from the Liberal Democratic Party - even Mr. Hatoyama, head of the Democratic Party, began his political career in the LDP.

The moderate-conservative LDP officially formed in 1955 but its roots date to the 1870's. Political analysts say its diverse membership is unified by little more than a desire for an efficient government manipulating the levers of the economy and policy.

But critics long complained that the LDP relied too much on money politics - buying votes with unnecessary public spending and building support from business leaders with favorable policies. Over the decades, scores of LDP politicians have been toppled when they were caught in corruption scandals too big to ignore.

Mr. Hatoyama came to power with much fanfare as the first prime minister of the Democratic Party, touted as a clean break from the past.

Yet he is a fourth-generation politician, whose grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama helped found the LDP and served as prime minister. The departing prime minister's brother, Kunio, is a former cabinet minister who spent his political career in the LDP until March, when he left to start a new party.

Cynics in Japan argue that pragmatism and corrupt money politics always trump policy priorities for mainstream politicians. And following long tradition, important political decisions are almost always made behind closed doors.

That appears to include Mr. Hatoyama's resignation, which came after he met twice with Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ's departing secretary-general. Ozawa was arguably the most powerful man in Japan during Mr. Hatoyama's tenure. But tainted by funding scandals, he is considered unelectable as prime minister. Still, few Japanese doubt that he has, and will continue to, cast a large shadow over the country's politics.

Ozawa, notably a former chief secretary of the LDP and second-generation politician, on Wednesday afternoon offered a prosaic comment that he was "very sorry" to see Hatoyama go.

The DPJ is to choose a new leader Friday in a hurried effort to prepare for Upper House elections and to have someone to shake hands with other world leaders at the G8 summit in Canada - both events taking place within the next five weeks.

At home, however, there is only moderate concern about the prospect of a new prime minister. Consultant Serizawa, a former senior advisor to the World Economic Forum, says the political turmoil was the topic of humor during her lunch Wednesday with some top bureaucrats and politicians.

"We joked that changing prime ministers has become our national annual summer festival," said Serizawa.

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