Hatoyama Failed as PM but Set Japan on a New Course

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Yoshikazu Tsuno / Pool / Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama speaks with reporters at his office in Tokyo on June 2, 2010

We've long since learned that Prime Ministers of Japan come and go so often, it's practically an annual event, like the cherry blossoms blooming in Tokyo's Ueno Park or the ball dropping in Times Square on New Year's Eve. Bill Clinton, when he was out of office, once asked me a trivia question: "Do you know how many Japanese Prime Ministers I dealt with when I was in office?" I had to confess to the former President that I'd lost track, even though I was based in Tokyo for much of Clinton's first term. "Seven!" he cried with unfeigned "Can you believe that?" exasperation. I believed it.

With the announcement on Wednesday that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama will step down after just eight months in office, Japan has gone 4 for 4: four PMs in four years. It's easy to dismiss virtually everything that goes on in Japan these days; its economy is stuck in its second "lost decade" of slow growth, and its another-one-bites-the-dust politics can seem even more dreary.

However, as unlikely as it might seem, Hatoyama's brief term may yet prove more consequential than most think. Indeed, a couple of decades from now, we may come to believe that he contributed to a historic pivot in Japan that many view as inevitable: a gradual but unmistakable reordering of Tokyo's relationship with Washington and a reorientation of its foreign policy with an emphasis on the emerging power in East Asia, China.

That Hatoyama campaigned last year on closing the U.S.'s Futenma Marine base on Okinawa — an installation bitterly opposed by the vast majority of residents on the Japanese island — was not a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention to what the future Prime Minister used to say publicly all the time. In 1996, as leader of the then fledgling Democratic Party, he campaigned for the lower house by calling for a renegotiation of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which has been the bedrock of postwar relations between Washington and Tokyo. He further wanted to "adjust, reduce or remove U.S. bases on the [Japanese] mainland and Okinawa," and "map out a structure in which no U.S. forces would be stationed in Japan in normal times." In an article he wrote that year in the highbrow Japanese magazine Bungei Shunju, Hatoyama even pinpointed a year in the future by which he hoped U.S.-Japanese relations would reach "a more equal partnership," as he put it. The target date, he wrote 14 years ago, was 2010.

Didn't quite happen, of course. Once in office, the career guys in Japan's Foreign Ministry and U.S. President Barack Obama brought intense pressure on Hatoyama to reverse his stand on the Marine base, and he caved. Okinawans were outraged, and a lot of mainlanders were too. Combined with a bad economy, a general sense of bungling and the odor of financial scandal that constantly hangs about his political godfather, Ichiro Ozawa, Hatoyama's approval rating plummeted to the high teens. So on Wednesday he said he'd go.

But the issues that he broached, either directly or indirectly, aren't going anywhere. Hatoyama understood — as does Ozawa and much of the Japanese Establishment — that improving relations with China is central both to Tokyo's security and its prosperity going forward. Unlike several of his predecessors, he declined to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, and publicly rebuked the right-wing lobby in Tokyo, which still tries to downplay the country's atrocities during World War II. Relations with both China and South Korea, he said, "would improve and further develop with the correct recognition of history."

The trick for Japan is to move closer to China without souring ties with the U.S. Hatoyama, who is anything but anti-American (he attended graduate school at Stanford), plainly failed in trying to do that. Some Americans, particularly in the Pentagon, view Japan's choice as something of a zero-sum game — if it tries to move closer to China, the U.S. by definition loses. Hawks tend, with some justification, to believe that China's goal is to "peel off" Tokyo from the U.S.-Japan security alliance, thus dealing U.S. influence in the Pacific a serious blow. Presumably Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are not hawks, and do not share such an up-or-down view of it. Yet Hatoyama managed to frustrate them deeply, to the point that "mending the U.S.-Japan alliance will now not be easy," as Bruce Klingner, a northeast Asia policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation says.

Make no mistake, though: the next Japanese Prime Minister (and the next, and the next, and the next) is going to have to try to do the same thing: make Japan's relationship with both Washington and Beijing more normal, without completely cratering the U.S.-Japan alliance. Yukio Hatoyama couldn't pull it off, and it cost him his job. Next in line is likely to be Naoto Kan, the reform-minded Finance Minister, or perhaps Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada. But everyone who walks through the spinning prime ministerial door in Tokyo over the next several years will try to pull off the same feat.