Quiet end to a vexed tenure

Missteps send prime minister packing after just eight months

by and

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama returned to his office Wednesday minutes after announcing his resignation and was greeted by hoards of reporters expecting a comment from the once-popular leader.

Turning down requests to speak on camera, Hatoyama snubbed reporters by saying “there’s been enough already.”

Later in the day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said the prime minister has no intention of holding a farewell news conference, as was the practice of his predecessors.

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end for Hatoyama, who boasted an approval rate of over 70 percent when he took office following the Democratic Party of Japan’s historic win in the general election last summer.

The stakes were high but so was public support. The launch of the Hatoyama Cabinet was greeted as a historic moment in postwar politics, ending over five decades of almost uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party.

And yet, merely eight months later, Hatoyama is leaving the prime minister’s residence without even a proper sendoff.

“It all comes down to the fact that Hatoyama’s approach to his job was extremely careless,” said Kazuaki Tanaka, a professor emeritus at Takushoku University, who highlighted Hatoyama’s unrealistic vow to resolve the relocation row over Futenma air base by May 31 as a key turning point. Hatoyama never seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation during his short stint, the expert on politics said.

From the get-go, the DPJ lacked a sense of responsibility as the head of the ruling bloc, as it ineffectually struggled to realize its campaign pledges, Tanaka added.

“The feasibility of such political pledges wasn’t given much thought or discussed within the party to begin with,” Tanaka said, pointing out that Hatoyama’s lack of leadership and the rookie nature of the DPJ did fatal damage to the administration.

Like any administration, Hatoyama’s had its ups and downs, with some positive outcomes, including cutting some fat from the government’s budget, critics said. Budget screenings by the Government Revitalization Unit, called “shiwake,” received ample media coverage and shed light on lavish spending that remained hidden during the LDP’s rule.

Hatoyama also ended the dispute over the existence of secret pacts on nuclear arms and other issues reached between Japan and the United States. While the LDP administration continued to deny any such agreements, a panel working under Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in March concluded there was a secret deal between the two governments.

The prime minister patted himself on the back in his resignation speech Wednesday, noting that during his short stint key goals were achieved, including the disbursement of child allowances and the elimination of high school tuition fees.

But Hatoyama’s achievements are eclipsed by his failures, including being unable to keep his promise to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma somewhere outside Okinawa and thus scuttle a 2006 Japan-U.S. accord reached under LDP rule. The Futenma quagmire also strained ties with Washington to some extent.

Despite the widely held belief that finding a relocation site would not be easy, Hatoyama continued to express confidence in himself. He even vowed to the Diet in April that he was ready to “risk his life” to achieve an acceptable outcome.

In a speech in Chiba Prefecture on Wednesday, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — the last prime minister to stay more than a year in office — gave his take on Hatoyama’s sudden demise: “Prime Minister Hatoyama choked himself with his own (vows).”

Yasuharu Ishizawa, a professor of politics and media at Gakushuin Women’s College, said, “Hatoyama should have made reasonable adjustments to his political pledges.”

Not only did he stick to the idea of relocating Futenma outside Okinawa, he unwisely promised to pull it off in just a few months, he said.

“Those vows in the (campaign) manifesto were made by (DPJ Secretary General Ichiro) Ozawa as catchphrases for the general election,” and trying to accomplish them put Hatoyama’s back to the wall, Ishizawa said. The result is now Hatoyama is the fourth prime minister to step down in as many years, following Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso out the door.

Hatoyama’s resignation is particularly disappointing to voters because the change of government led to the same result, he said.

“This is not a good outcome, because, until Hatoyama, it was all about political dynamics within the LDP,” Ishizawa said in criticizing the revolving door to the prime minister’s office.

Meanwhile, Gakushuin’s Ishizawa said it’s unlikely Hatoyama’s legacy will be evaluated highly by historians.

If the next administration does well, Hatoyama’s Cabinet and its blunders “will be noted as something that inevitably took place during a transitional phase,” Ishizawa said.

“But if the disorder continues within the government, Hatoyama will receive harsh criticism as the leader who miserably failed at a crucial turning point in Japanese politics.”