What Hatoyama’s Resignation Teaches Us About Responsible Government

In 2003, conservative commentator Billy Krystol spoke at Boston College and foretold the rough road ahead for the Republicans by astutely observing, “There’s nothing more difficult than being in power.”

The flip side is equally true: there’s nothing easier–and more irresponsible–than not being in power.  This is a lesson the just-resigned Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan learned very painfully.

The single issue most responsible for bringing down the Hatoyama government only eight months after being swept into power with more than 70% approval rating was the Futenma base in Okinawa.

Futenma is one of the many remanent of World War II in Okinawa, where America continues to maintain a major military presence 65 years after the war.

In 1996, three Marines raped a girl but the American military refused to hand over to Japan the soldiers responsible.  People in Okinawa became rightfully livid and the government, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, explored ways to have the Futenma base returned to Japan.

Americans were open to the idea but it took a full 10 years, during which LDP continuously governed Japan, to reach an agreement to relocate the Futenma base to the area of Henoko.  Part of the plan involved building a runway over the ocean by creating a landfill.

In September of 2009, the DPJ swept into power, kicking the LDP out of power for the first time in 15 years.

One of the campaign promises the then-DPJ leader Hatoyama made was that he will move the Futenma base out of Okinawa and out of the country.  This was great news to the Social Democratic Party with which Hatoyama formed a coalition because SDP’s strongest base of support is in Okinawa due to the party’s peace platform.

Upon taking office, Hatoyama promised a resolution to the Futenma relocation issue by the end of the year.  In November, President Obama asked that the 2006 agreement be adhered to and Hatoyama reportedly responded, “Trust me.”  By the time December rolled around, Hatoyama said he will give great consideration to the mayoral race being held in Henoko, which was to take place in February of next year.

The anti-base faction won a close election in Henoko.  Around this time, Hatoyama promised a full resolution by the end of May.  When pressed for what a resolution meant, he clarified that it meant he will obtain the agreement of the Americans, Okinawans and the coalition partners to the new agreement.

Common sense would dictate that if an agreement took 10 years to reach, a new agreement can’t be formed in mere 6 months, but Hatoyama stood by his self-imposed deadline of  May to move the base out of Okinawa.  Having upped the ante, people of Okinawa increasingly expected the base to be moved.  The governor of Okinawa was compelled to follow course even though in 1998, 2002 and 2006, people of Okinawa elected governors who supported the relocation, albeit conditionally.

By April, Obama grew skeptical of the timeline, asking Hatoyama in the widely-reported, but vehemently-denied quote, “Can you follow through?”  As newspapers reported that a May resolution was hopeless, Hatoyama kept on plowing forward, now declaring that the landfill proposal was an unacceptable offense to the environment.

In late-April, Hatoyama began running out of options, discovering, not surprisingly, that all ideas he proposed were already explored with the Americans during the last 10 years and were rejected for various strategic reasons.  In the beginning of May, he visited Okinawa for the first time and revealed that his plan now revolved around keeping the base in Okinawa while committing to moving as much of the military operations to the mainland.  The governor responded that this proposal was hard to swallow and Henoko’s mayor deemed it unacceptable.

By mid-May, it became clear that the new agreement with the Americans would only involve minor tweaks to the 2006 agreement.  Rumors swirled around how Hatoyama will make this decision official–by a PM announcement or a cabinet decision–while SDP’s party leader, who was also a cabinet minister, predictably threatened that she will refuse to sign any cabinet statement that did not include a provision moving the base out of Okinawa.

Hatoyama decided to play chicken and took the uncharacteristically bold step of requiring a cabinet statement.  SDP’s leader followed through on her promise.  Hatoyma responded by firing her.  Two days later, SDP left the coalition and Hatoyama’s approval rating sank below 20%.  Restless party members facing an upper house election in July engaged in open revolt.

I predicted that the Futenma issue will bring down the Hatoyama government in February because by then, this was the only way this political saga could possibly end.  It wasn’t possible to move the base in mere 6 months because it couldn’t be done in 10 years.  The longer Hatoyama refused to concede this obvious point, the worse it got because people of Okinawa would become emboldened leaving SDP to follow course.  Anyone with political common sense would realize that the Okinawa issue is a deal breaker for the SDP since that’s about the only place in the country where they have any support left.

Of course, it didn’t help that Hatoyama was incredibly obtuse.  After all, this is the same man who, in 2002 during his prior sting as party leader, asked a major third party to merge into the DPJ without ever consulting his party colleagues.  Had he been politically apt, he would have salvaged the situation by reversing course immediately after the election, declaring adherence to the 2006 agreement and taking his 70% approval rating for a spin.

The approval rating would have inevitably dipped, but the Futenma saga demonstrates that breaking the campaign promise would have been the responsible course.  The LDP more than anyone understood that the Henako relocation was as good as Japan could get because it had to fight hard to obtain it.  None of the DPJ, the SDP and the people understood this hard reality.  They could talk of moving the base to Guam–a delusional fantasy–but never had to back up their words with action.

That’s why it’s great to be in opposition: it’s easier to be a rowdy fan in the stands than a gutty player on the field.   The opposition takes no responsibility for its words–nor is it called to do so.  In that sense, people, more than any politicians, are the worse offenders of irresponsible ethos.  At least the politicians are in the stands.   The people are more akin to casual sports fans who cuss at the TV monitor while channel surfing when they happen to see the home team losing.

The people of Japan–and people of any democracy–should start looking themselves long and hard in the mirror before they label unfulfilled campaign promises as “lies” and blame politicians for whatever ill has befallen on the nation.  If democracy is about power to the people–and it is in the United States and Japan where people have the right to vote and stand for elections–politics is reflection of the people and all of their irresponsibility.


2 Responses to “What Hatoyama’s Resignation Teaches Us About Responsible Government”

  1. 1 chris S. June 2, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    This reminds me somewhat of the continuing saga of Obama “shutting down guantanamo.” It’s easy to make the promise, but very difficult to follow through.

    • 2 joesas June 2, 2010 at 8:56 pm


      Or whether you should follow through at all…

      I think the biggest difference between Obama and Hatoyama is that Obama wasn’t so incompetent as to keep on repeating that Guatanamo will close and setting an arbitrary, self-imposed deadline that’s like a month away…

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