Commentary / Japan

The Hatoyama administration's significance

by Robert D. Eldridge

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe implemented a long-awaited Cabinet reshuffle. Personnel matters are not Abe’s forte; worse, he tends to be particularly beholden to friends and factions. I am highly pleased with some appointments but disappointed with others.

In any case, these movements have tended to overshadow an important anniversary in Japan this week. The Yukio Hatoyama administration, the first of three consecutive Democratic Party of Japan-led governments, began 10 years ago on Sept. 16, 2009.

Readers will remember that earlier this year in February, Abe called the three years of the DPJ administration “a nightmare” at a Liberal Democratic Party gathering. But what he neglected to say is that it was the failures and scandals of the repeatedly short administrations of him and his LDP successors that brought about the overwhelming DPJ victory in the August 2009 general election.

As a political scientist specializing in Japanese political and diplomatic history, I recall, back at the time of the September 2005 general election in which the LDP led by Junichiro Koizumi won 296 seats, pointing out to anyone who would listen that the LDP would likely lose the next time around. This was counterintuitive for most people, as the LDP had gained almost 60 seats at the expense of the DPJ.

My main — but not only — reason for thinking this was that no one in the LDP had the same level of popularity as Koizumi, a true populist, and the LDP had only his coattails when he stepped down after being in office for so long, which he did in September 2006. Of course, this was a highly controversial opinion, especially in Washington, which likes to pride itself on being able to manage its relationship with Tokyo.

Such a prediction became clearer when the LDP lost control of the Upper House as a result of its defeat in the July 2007 House of Councilors election, which brought about the decision by Abe, who had succeeded Koizumi, to resign that September after exactly one year in office.

Yasuo Fukuda, like Abe, was considered one of the thoroughbreds of the party (his father, like Abe’s grandfather, had been prime minister at one point, each creating a political dynasty), but he, too, had to step down a year later, turning it over to Taro Aso, another thoroughbred (a grandson of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida).

I remember debating this turn of events with a prominent member of the LDP and someone close to Abe, arguing that Abe was too soon and Fukuda (who had been expected to succeed Koizumi) too late. He agreed but shrugged, saying he “could not go against the party.”

When the public saw that even the best and brightest of the LDP could not rule the country, or even save their respective Cabinets from scandals and gaffes, voters decided to try their luck with the DPJ, which had been formed a decade before, when elections came up again. It was the first time for voters to consciously choose to oust the LDP, which had served basically nonstop since its formation in 1955 (and since 1948, if you include one of its main predecessor parties).

True, in 1993, the LDP fell from power, but that was an implosion rather than an outright loss of voter confidence per se. The LDP came back to power the following year through a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party and New Party Sakigake, which had broken from the LDP, and eventually would rid itself of those two and partner with Komeito. It has not looked back since. But it should. Nothing in politics can be taken for granted.

Replicating the final years of the Koizumi administration, there are many voices today saying that Abe’s popularity cannot be replicated in the post-Abe years, which in turn suggests that the LDP lacks qualified leaders.

But that is true of the opposition parties today, as well. The DPJ, with its own factionalism, eventually broke up and while there is cooperation between the opposition parties in policy matters and elections, they are individually very weak and see regular defections.

One of their weaknesses has been their failure to develop new talent, instead preferring to recycle the same faces over and over again as they merge, divide and merge again.

But back at this time in 2009, there was much excitement (and anxiety) in the air. Many of those who became Cabinet members were new faces to much of the public and to the world.

I joined the U.S. Department of Defense (for the second time), which had been caught off-guard by these events, at exactly this point, working for the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa as the political/public diplomacy advisor. Since 2005, in my academic capacity, I had spent the years in between getting to know members of the DPJ in anticipation of their victory, and was in the perfect position to further the relationship with them after they took power and I too was in government.

Among their many problems were the twin facts that they struggled with policy matters as most of them had never served in government before and they alienated the bureaucracy by insisting on political control over the policymaking process, rather than deferring to the bureaucrats as the LDP had long been known for, and that an all-too comfortable relationship had been built up between Kasumigaseki and Nagatacho.

Some readers may think that the Hatoyama administration must have been “hell” for the U.S. Marine Corps, but I always told visitors and audiences that it was a blessing in disguise. True, it was a busy time, and we had delegations every weekend for months on end as new ministers, vice ministers, committee chairpersons, party leaders, etc., visited our installations to learn about the bases. Media interest was also very high due to the populist pledge of Hatoyama, who had succeeded Ichiro Ozawa as head of the party in May, to seek the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside of Okinawa (if not the country).

However, all of this attention, brought about by the start (and subsequent dysfunction) of the Hatoyama administration, allowed us in the U.S. Marine Corps to tell our story for the first time. In other words, we got to talk about the Japan-U.S. alliance, the role of the U.S. Marine Corps in that alliance, and the importance of Futenma to the operations of the U.S. Marine Corps on behalf of the alliance.

Ironically, we never really had that chance under successive LDP administrations. The alliance, especially the U.S. Marine Corps, was not really publicly discussed, being left to handlers. Had it been, the public would have had a greater understanding of the alliance and the U.S. Marine Corps and would not have been misled by the DPJ’s manifesto and Hatoyama’s “promises.”

For this, I blame the LDP, not the DPJ. If anything — all irony aside — I am almost grateful to the DPJ for providing the stage to tell our story. In any case, Abe may wish to forget this time as a bad dream, but he shouldn’t, and must try to learn from it, as should the opposition parties, the voters and alliance managers who backed the wrong horse.

Robert D. Eldridge is a former political adviser for the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan and the author of over 70 books dealing with Japan-U.S. relations. His latest book is “An ‘Alliance Asset’: Essays on the Deployment of the U.S. Marine Corps’ MV-22 Ospreys to Japan” (Reed International, 2019).