New Japanese prime minister changes political dynamics of Asia

Friday, September 4, 2009 | 11:52 a.m. CDT

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism:  Yukio Hatoyama, who will become the next prime minister of Japan in a couple weeks, has never served in a high public office and is not known for being charismatic. He led the untested Democratic Party of Japan to a resounding victory that drove the Liberal Democratic Party from power after more than a half century of rule. His grandfather founded the Liberal Democratic Party, and his father and brother had important positions in it. Hatoyama got his start in the LDP but broke away from it to found the Democratic Party of Japan. His party challenges the way the government runs Japan and challenges the United States’ world leadership. When he published an article detailing that, it created an uproar in Japan and caused great concern in Washington. Hatoyama had a phone conversation with President Barack Obama on Wednesday, saying that he was misinterpreted. What you think the most important changes will be in the way Japan is governed?

Hiroyuki Takahashi, political correspondent, Jiji Press, Tokyo: The DPJ politicians themselves recognize that the result of this election is caused by the LDP’s failure, not the DPJ’s victory. The economy is bad, and the social security and pension systems are almost bankrupt, so people want change.

Loory: Does that mean there will be major changes because of the LDP’s failure?

Eric Johnston, deputy editor, The Japan Times, Osaka, Japan: This election was foremost about domestic politics. It was a clear repudiation of the policies of former Prime Minister Koizumi between 2001 and 2006. The changes that would take place are primarily at the domestic level — more emphasis on addressing the imbalance that many people say existed during the Koizumi years. There is a sense that the Koizumi revolution benefited people in the big cities but not in the prefectures. The DPJ, while it was aware of that, spent a long time working the provinces, listening to what they wanted and basically adopted the manifesto and the critical policies based on that. That’s a major reason why the DPJ had such a huge victory. The cabinet will not be formed until Sept. 16 and already there are a lot of lobby groups who are challenging the DPJ, asking if they can really deliver what they promised and if so, how. The major business lobbies are very concerned that the DPJ’s economic plans lack detail at this point.

Loory: Tell us how Hatoyama, who is not exactly a charismatic politician but comes from a Kennedyesque family in Japan, will function as the leader?

Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C.: It took 11 years for the DPJ to be formed and to become a real electoral force in Japan’s lower house election on Sunday. Credit is due to the policymaking side, but also for the political acumen and strength to develop a real challenge to the LDP; Hatoyama should not get the whole credit for that. His grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, was a major reformer as head of the Democratic Party in the immediate postwar period and helped form the Liberal Democrats in 1955. He is soft spoken, but he has deep philosophical attachments to this idea of political liberalism. It will take a couple years to see whether the DPJ can govern or not.

Loory: Hatoyama did not get off to a good start with an article he wrote in The New York Times last week.

Smith: Exactly. There was a great deal of nervousness inside Japan about how, especially Washington, is responding to that article. He did give a philosophical foundation to some policy positions of the DPJ. They are trying to move Japan in a more European than American direction in that they are trying to create a much more responsive social welfare state. That makes many in the U.S. nervous about trade and investment. The Times article was a reduction of a larger essay published in the Voice Magazine in Japanese. He is coming to America in late September, and he will reassure Americans that he is not anti-alliance, or even anti-market capitalism, but that he is trying to craft a new future for Japan.

Loory: Relations between Japan and both North and South Korea have not been good over the years. How will they change in the new Japanese administration?

Brian Lee, political reporter, JoongAng Daily, Seoul, South Korea: This is the most important thing in South Korea right now, what the new administration in Japan will do for its foreign policy. Look at the shared history: South Korea was a colony, for 35 years, of Japan; there were a lot of atrocities committed during World War II. That historical issue has always been a snag in developing a more constructive bilateral relationship. Japanese political leaders have issued so-called official apologies but then acted as if the past never happened. Hatoyama promised not to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which honors war criminals, while serving as a prime minister.

Loory: Japan’s economic dominance in Asia is being challenged by China. What does this mean for their relationship?

Kathleen McLaughlin, China correspondent, Global Post, Beijing: China is trumpeting this election result as a potential for a new beginning, but no specifics have been spelled out. They have talked a lot about the Yasukuni shrine and Hatoyama’s promises. Earlier this decade, Koizumi was making regular visits there, which boiled over into protests in China. China has so much more power than they did 10 years ago. The relationship is shifting, and China is perhaps waiting to see what the new prime minister does next.

Loory: The U.S. has 50,000 troops stationed in Japan, with thousands on the island of Okinawa. Some in Japan feel the Okinawa Marine air base should be moved.

Smith: Deep negotiation has occurred for over a decade and a half. Okinawa is a very small island, and 75 percent of our forces in Japan are concentrated there. Okinawa was also the only homeland battle between American and Japanese forces in World War II. This base is over 50 years old, and now it is located in the middle of a densely populated residential area. The two governments, in 1997, decided to relocate the base. The latest version of the plan is to relocate the command and 8,000 marines with their families to Guam.

Loory: I read this move would cost about $6 billion?

Smith: On the American side, just the relocation is closer to $10 billion, depending on what is included in the calculation. The Japanese are expected to pay 60 percent of it. The Japanese government pays local towns and villages subsidies to offset the impact of U.S. forces; it pays “host nation support,” which is the Japanese government payment for utilities and electricity, all kinds of things that offset the cost of maintaining forces there. So for the Japanese taxpayer, the additional cost of paying the U.S. marines to go home seems a bit overwhelming.

Loory: The U.S. has thousands of troops stationed in South Korea. Will there be changes or negotiations for American withdrawals?

Lee: The U.S. has roughly 25,000 troops, and progress to relocate the bases started many years ago. The political will in withdrawing U.S. forces was in line with Washington’s view that they were needed elsewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq. The deals are almost done. It was only a question of who is going to pay, how much and how many South Korean people U.S. forces employ.

Loory: Hatoyama has been critical of American military policies in South Asia? Is this expected to increase?

Johnston: Yes, it is still early; the campaign rhetoric must be separated from what they may do now that they actually have to assemble a government. On the Okinawa issue, the replacement facility was scheduled to be completed by 2014, but they are nowhere near to completing it.

Loory: How might an East Asian conglomeration of countries — Japan, South Korea, China — challenge American economic dominance around the world in the near future?

McLaughlin: The question is whether it will — with each country having very different interests, political systems and histories — be able to come together cohesively. I’m not sure they are there. Right now, in China particularly, the primary agenda is shoring up their own domestic economy. China is still growing fast, but it has been hit by the economic crisis.

Loory: The winds of change regarding American world leadership certainly are blowing around the world. This election in Japan is the latest strong gust.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, Melissa Ulbricht and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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