“I wish to apologize to the Japanese people for having betrayed their expectations,” says Yukio Hatoyama halfway through our interview, lowering his head and bowing deeply.
Hatoyama, prime minister for nine months of the Democratic Party of Japan’s three years in power between 2009 and 2012, is discussing the reasons behind his resignation in June 2010 — specifically, his failure to live up to his party’s promise to block the contentious U.S. Marine Corps base construction now underway at Henoko in Okinawa.
Recently, the former DPJ leader has been in the news for other mea culpas in Nanjing and Seoul — apologies made, he says, on behalf of Japanese for colonial-era crimes in Asia. These unsanctioned trips have incensed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has painted Hatoyama as a charlatan and even a traitor for his foreign escapades.
For those having trouble placing Hatoyama among the three DPJ figures who served as prime minister in that brief, heady period when power in postwar Japan changed hands, he is the one who led the DPJ to that historic victory. You know — the “alien.”
Hatoyama, now 68 and retired from politics, has never been able to shake that nickname. Coined by the domestic media in 2001 during his first stint as DPJ leader, the foreign press had a field day with Hatoyama’s extraterrestrial appellation, rejoicing in the fact that they finally had a Japanese leader who stood out from the crowd.
But what was it that made Hatoyama appear so otherworldly? True, his saucer-like eyes did give him a vague resemblance to E.T., but his nickname was not just the product of his looks and his manner; it also owed much to his proposals — proposals that were and remain anathema to Japan’s conservative establishment.
But how did Hatoyama, who came from a well-known, politically conservative family, become a maverick? In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, Hatoyama discussed a range of issues, including Okinawa, the relationship between the Fukushima No. 1 disaster and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, and his proposal for the creation of an “East Asian EU.” He began by explaining the circumstances that led him to resign the prime minister’s post in 2010 after only nine months in office.
“The DPJ, of which I was leader, proposed a revision of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement in our manifesto for the 2009 House of Representatives election. We also proposed the realignment of the U.S. military in Japan, including a review of the state of U.S. bases,” he explains. “As for the relocation of the U.S. Marine base to Henoko, I personally said that at the very least, it should be moved outside (Okinawa) Prefecture. However, as soon as the DPJ took power, bureaucrats close to the U.S. in the Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry moved to crush my proposal.”
In the end, Hatoyama’s idea went nowhere, and Henoko was confirmed as the proposed site for the new base. Many Okinawans — and DPJ voters — felt betrayed, and the party began to fear defeat in the Upper House elections of July 2010. “So I decided to resign,” Hatoyama confesses. “There was no excuse.”
During his time in office, Hatoyama also emphasized the need for a less lopsided Japan-U.S. relationship.
“I thought that as prime minister, it was only natural for me to seek an equal relationship with the United States. However, there are many (Japanese) politicians and bureaucrats who believe that because Japan is dependent on the U.S. in so many ways, it isn’t appropriate to seek an equal relationship. Once again, my proposal ended in failure.”
This was the first time in the postwar period that a Japanese prime minister had made such a demand. Hatoyama even dared suggest that Japan’s security could be achieved without a permanent U.S. troop presence. None of this was welcomed by those, on both sides of the Pacific, long accustomed to Japan’s subservience to U.S. interests.
Hatoyama was born in 1947 and graduated from the University of Tokyo before going to earn a Ph.D. in industrial engineering at Stanford. Upon graduation, he initially pursued an academic career, but later decided to run for the House of Representatives in 1986.
His lofty aim was to “restore sovereign power to the people, breaking from a system dependent on the bureaucracy,” he says, and to “transform Japan from a centralized state to one of regional and local sovereignty, and from an insular island to an open maritime state.”
During his campaign, Hatoyama took advantage of his experience as a researcher and garnered public attention with his unique appeal for “a scientific approach to politics.” Following his election, he quickly became a controversial figure for, among other things, revealing the huge scale of political campaign funding the LDP was receiving from business interests — even though he was a member of the party at the time.
“I eventually left the Liberal Democratic Party because of repeated incidents involving money and politics, such as the Recruit insider-trading and corruption scandal of 1988 and Shin Kanemaru’s huge tax evasion affair of 1992,” Hatoyama says. “Political reform was urgently called for, but the LDP was unwilling to act.”
A messy political realignment soon followed, eventually leading to the creation of the current iteration of the Democratic Party of Japan in 1998. Hatoyama went on to lead the party between 1999 and 2002, and again from May 2009. The DPJ grew steadily until finally, in September 2009, it succeeded in ousting the scandal-tainted LDP.
Hatoyama became Japan’s 93rd prime minister, though he would not remain so for long. Government bureaucrats, long accustomed to running the country behind the scenes, acted quickly to undermine his administration and hasten its demise.
Hatoyama says that Defense Ministry officials attempted to scuttle his plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma air base outside of Okinawa by claiming that any replacement facility must be located within 65 miles (105 km) of the marines’ Northern Okinawa Training Area. “The bureaucrats and ministers who should have been doing their best to support me were in fact attempting to resolve the matter by supporting the U.S.,” Hatoyama says.
The 65-mile requirement effectively precluded moving the base off the main island of Okinawa, which is a convenient 70 miles long. Yet the source of this apparent requirement remains elusive. Hatoyama says the Defense Ministry simply claimed that this figure was included in a U.S. military document. “Whether or not this requirement was expressly stated in the document remains unclear even now,” he notes.
But what about the U.S.? Were American officials also involved in the attempt to derail Hatoyama’s base relocation plans? Apparently not, Hatoyama says.
“No documents on the U.S. side support the claim of Defense Ministry officials. Thus, it can be said their claim was groundless,” he explains. “It’s possible it was just their way of forcing me to abandon my proposal. However, when we consider the feelings of the Okinawan people, there’s no way they would grant permission for the base to be relocated within Okinawa.”
At this point in the interview, Hatoyama bowed and offered his apology.
Another blow to the fledgling DPJ administration came in December 2009, when it was revealed that Hatoyama had received some ¥1.2 billion in political donations that had been improperly reported. Most of the money came from his mother, the wealthy heiress to the Bridgestone empire, though ¥400 million of this was listed as coming from fictitious donors — including some who were deceased.
While Hatoyama denied personal knowledge of the donations, he later apologized to the nation for the scandal and promised to pay more than ¥600 million in gift taxes on donations made to him by his mother that were first deemed as “loans.” Hatoyama recognizes the major impact this issue had on his tenure as prime minister, admitting, “The political donations I received from my mother were the second major reason I had to resign.”
Prosecutors declined to bring charges against Hatoyama, citing insufficient evidence of criminal activity. They did, however, indict two of his former secretaries, resulting in a ¥300,000 fine for one and a suspended sentence for the other. While no question of corporate bribery or political favors was involved, the incident nevertheless served to raise questions in the public’s mind about just how different the DPJ was from the money-tainted politics of the long-ruling LDP.
The media was unforgiving. After all, Hatoyama had already managed to upset both the establishment media and their new-media competitors. The former fought against his proposal to open up the prime minister’s news conferences to journalists from outside the cozy “press club,” and the latter were angry after he failed to follow through on that pledge.
“When I became prime minister, I tried to abolish the press-club system, which had become a vested interest for its members,” Hatoyama explains. “However, I was subject to a fierce counterattack.”
One club-affiliated reporter told Hatoyama that the prime minister’s press conferences were not something he was in charge of but, rather, something the press club sponsored.
Although by March 11, 2011, Naoto Kan was prime minister, Hatoyama was still a member of the House of Representatives, and the multiple disasters — especially the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 plant — affected him deeply. In the December 2011 issue of the magazine Nature, Hatoyama co-authored an article expressing his concerns about both the radioactive and political fallout from the accident.
Titled “Nationalize the Fukushima Daiichi atomic plant,” Hatoyama first pointed out the need “to know precisely what happened (on March 11, 2011) and what is continuing to happen now.” He further argued that only when all the evidence relating to the accident had been gathered and made public “will the world be able to have faith in the containment plan developed by Tepco or be able to judge how it should be modified.”
Hatoyama and two fellow Diet members formed a committee to conduct an independent investigation of the accident. The group reached two major conclusions, outlined in the Nature article. First: “The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant must be nationalized so that information can be gathered openly. Even the most troubling facts should be released to the public.” Second: “A special science council should be created to help scientists from various disciplines work together on the analyses. That should help to overcome the dangerous optimism of some of the engineers who work within the nuclear industry.”
Although Hatoyama is no longer a Diet member, he has not lost interest in this issue. Recently, he joined former Japanese Ambassador to Switzerland Mitsuhei Murata in calling for “an honorable retreat from the 2020 Olympic Games.” Echoing Murata, who was also present at the interview, Hatoyama says, “In a situation in which nothing has been resolved at Fukushima, Japan must not sponsor something like the Olympic Games.”
Hatoyama elaborates: “There are still many inhabitants of the Tohoku region living in temporary housing. Moreover, the government has yet to admit the truth about the accident despite its having been more severe than Chernobyl. It is regrettable that the government has failed in its duty to inform both the people of Japan and the world about the true situation. The government even goes so far as to deny the increased incidents of thyroid cancer in the Fukushima region are connected to radiation releases from the multiple meltdowns.”
Hatoyama believes the government claimed the situation at nuclear plant was “under control” in order to lure the 2020 Olympic Games to Tokyo. “The government was successful in this ploy,” he says, “but this was a complete lie. Far from having been under control then, it is still not under control even now. This is a grave situation.”
Hatoyama’s change of mind is significant because as prime minister in October 2009 he had given a speech in Copenhagen in support of Tokyo’s failed bid for the 2016 Games. At the time, he sought to promote a new image of the Olympics centered on environmental protection, held in harmony with nature and celebrating simplicity.
March 11, 2011, however, changed everything. Again, like Murata, Hatoyama stresses that he is not opposed to the Olympics per se, but asks: Why now, and why Tokyo — especially in the absence of any pressing need to do so? Hatoyama nods in assent when Murata states: “At this point there is no other solution than to stage an honorable retreat from the games. Failure to do so will ultimately lead to a disgraceful retreat, dishonoring our country. The time to act is now!”
Hatoyama’s reservations about Japan’s future are not limited to either Fukushima or the Olympics. Politically and militarily, Hatoyama believes Japan is moving in an ever more dangerous direction.
“Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe’s recent passage of the collective security bills has made it possible for America to call upon Japan to participate in its wars,” he says. “However, the Constitution states that Japan will never again wage war and, accordingly, rejects the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”
He continues: “Given this, I deeply regret that the road to our participation in war has been opened once again. It may be presumptuous of me to say this now that I am no longer a politician, but in light of the wrong direction our country is currently heading in, I earnestly hope for an end to the Abe regime.”
Just as relations between Tokyo and Beijing were sinking to new lows over historical and territorial issues, Hatoyama infuriated the Abe government with his decision to visit Nanjing in January 2013. At the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, he bowed and offered a silent prayer, later explaining, “As a Japanese, I feel responsible for the tragedy, and I am here expressing my sincere apology.”
While in Nanjing, Hatoyama also urged the Japanese government to acknowledge the dispute between the two countries concerning sovereignty of the islands known the Senkakus in Japanese and Diaoyu in China. “The Japanese government says there are no territorial disputes, but if you look at history, there is a dispute,” he says.
Hatoyama’s comments led Japanese government officials to criticize him for admitting the existence of a territorial dispute with China, something they adamantly deny. The defense minister at the time went so far as to use the word “traitor.”
“If his remarks have been politically used by China, I’m unhappy,” said Itsunori Onodera. “At that moment, the word ‘traitor’ arose in my mind.”
In March 2015, Hatoyama made another controversial trip, this time to Crimea, where he expressed his belief that Japan should “normalize” relations with Russia by lifting sanctions imposed after Moscow’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory. Hatoyama defended the referendum in the region as constitutional, stating, “Crimea wasn’t annexed unilaterally under pressure from Russia. In fact, people reached a conclusion based on their own strong will.”
Once again, Hatoyama’s remarks earned him the condemnation of the Japanese government. “It’s unthinkable that such action and comments came from a person who was once prime minister,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. Suga also described Hatoyama’s behavior as “extremely imprudent.”
In August 2015, just prior to Prime Minister Abe’s statement commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Hatoyama visited the Seodaemun Prison History Hall in Seoul. He knelt down in front of a memorial stone to apologize to Korean independence activists jailed, tortured and executed during Japan’s colonial control of Korea from 1910 to 1945.
“In the hope that no such mistake is made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology,” he said.
Though Hatoyama’s actions may seem quixotic or even deliberately provocative to some, they are best understood through the prism of his world view, which stands in stark contrast to one of the guiding principles of modern Japan in the years following the Meiji Restoration. Promoted by the famous Meiji educator Yukichi Fukuzawa, this principle is known as Datsu-A Ron or the “Goodbye Asia doctrine.” Fukuzawa maintained, “It is better for us to leave the ranks of Asian nations and cast our lot with the civilized nations of the West.”
While not turning his back on the West, Hatoyama nevertheless seeks to redirect Japan’s focus away from the U.S. and back to its geographical location in Asia. He imagines a Japan at peace with its neighbors — from Russia in the north to China and South Korea — and at ease with its position on the edge of the continent.
With this dream in mind, Hatoyama created the East Asian Community Research Institute in March 2013, with the ultimate goal of creating something resembling an East Asian EU. With membership open to the general public, the institute, through its educational arm, Sekai Yuai Forum, holds lectures and other events to promote Hatoyama’s vision.
All of which brings us back to the issue of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa. Hatoyama continues to be concerned about the struggle of the Okinawan people against the construction of the new U.S. base at Henoko. This led to a series of trips to Okinawa seeking a solution to this intractable problem. As recently as November, Hatoyama visited the island to encourage the anti-base demonstrators at Henoko.
Hatoyama envisions a future for Okinawa not as a “keystone of the Pacific” for the U.S. military but as a “keystone of peace” for the countries of Asia. He has called for the creation of an “East Asian Community” headquartered in Okinawa and composed of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China and South Korea.
“It is important for the countries of East Asia to become self-reliant, helping one another by developing win-win relationships,” he explains. “Should, however, they engage in a military arms race, it would only lead to a decline in deterrent power.”
“If Europe can do it,” says Hatoyama, pointing to the continent’s postwar integration, “there is no reason East Asia can’t.”
Brian A. Victoria is a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Your comments: email@example.com
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.