TOKYO — The newly elected leader of Japan’s opposition, Yukio Hatoyama, looks set to break the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) half-century stranglehold on power before the year is out. But does he have what it takes to tackle the enormous challenges facing the world’s second biggest economy?
Hatoyama became leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) a little more than a week ago after a close race, following former leader Ichiro Ozawa’s resignation.
Ozawa had been trouncing Prime Minister Taro Aso in opinion polls with his message of change from the murky status quo of corruption and vested interests. In March, however, his top aide was arrested for exactly the kind of murkiness — shady donations from construction companies in return for public works contracts — that Ozawa had been promising to extinguish.
Another pillar of the DPJ’s platform to end the current political order is to break the dynasties that have dominated post-war Japan, through its policy of banning the "inheriting" of electoral constituencies by relatives.
The problem is endemic in Japan: One-third of Lower House LDP members inherited their seats from older members of the family, rising to two-thirds in the cabinet of ministers. The current prime minister, and his three predecessors, are all sons or grandsons of former premiers. These boys, and a few girls, put the Clintons and Bushes to shame, and certainly give the Kennedys a run for their money.
At the end of April, the DPJ announced it would forbid hereditary constituencies to “the third degree of kinship.” And then, a few weeks later, it elected Yukio Hatoyama, the most blue-blooded of blue-bloods.
Hatoyama's great-grandfather was the speaker of the Japanese parliament, his grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, was prime minister, his father foreign minister, and his younger brother, Kunio, is currently a government minister in the LDP cabinet. Just for good measure, his other grandfather was the founder of the tire giant Bridgestone. Hardly surprisingly, the brothers are often compared to the Kennedys.
So much for breaking the dynasties then.
At the press conference after his leadership win, Hatoyama was asked if there was not a certain contradiction in all this. He responded, “I am a fourth-generation politician … I do not qualify as a hereditary politician under the definition proposed by the DPJ.” A real hereditary politician was, he explained, “when a lawmaker retires and his son or wife, for example, inherits his electoral base and runs for office. That is because this would give them an overwhelming advantage in the election. Those who are elected as hereditary politicians under such totally unfair conditions are in a sense weak, as they have gained their seat easily.”
Whatever advantages Hatoyama may have had in becoming DPJ leader, in the first opinion poll conducted since his rise, he is favored 43.6 percent to 32 percent as the best candidate for the prime ministership, over the incumbent Aso. Both men’s grandfathers were political rivals within the LDP and the election, which must be held by Sept. 11, is already being billed as a continuation of that rivalry.
So, what does Hatoyama, who has a Ph.D. from Stanford, actually stand for?
In one of his first speeches after assuming the leadership, he said he wanted to build a society based on "yuai," a slightly vague Japanese phrase that translates as something like "fraternity." Some voters and political commentators were unimpressed with Hatoyama following in the proud Japanese tradition of politicians saying very little of substance in their speeches. (In fact, his grandfather used the same phrase when he was prime minister just after World War II.)
“What was he talking about, ‘yuai,’ it sounded like Abe going on about building a beautiful Japan,” said Yuko Nakayama, a Tokyo office worker, referring to former prime minister Abe, a political scion who didn’t last a year in office. “It just sounded like a speech from another ‘obo-chan’ (spoiled rich boy).” Nakayama says she’ll still vote for the DPJ at the next election, though.
The DPJ, of which Hatoyama was a founding member in 1996, is a broad party — including everyone from former Socialist Party members to ex-LDP lawmakers, such as Hatoyama, to right-wing conservatives — whose members are apparently united only by a desire to defeat the government. It has traditionally supported a less U.S.-dependent role for Japan, including a re-evaluation of the security alliance that keeps large numbers of U.S. bases on Japanese soil.
Also high on Hatoyama’s agenda is ending the power of bureaucrats (who, in many people’s eyes, still exert excessive power), providing financial support to families to attempt to boost the declining birthrate, and abolishing corporate political donations.
Whoever wins the election faces an economy battered by the global slowdown, rising unemployment with an ill-equipped welfare system, and an aging population that will continue to strain public finances already laden with debt levels higher than anywhere except Zimbabwe.
Fixing these will certainly take more than "fraternity."
More GlobalPost dispatches on Japan:
Naked, drunk and incoherent in Tokyo
Holy mackerel: A breakthrough in tuna science?
The endless lure of pachinko