Hatoyama Resigns — Is Japan Falling Apart?

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) announced his resignation today, just nine months after winning an historic mandate.  More significant, the “shadow shogun,” kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa, stepped down from his post as DPJ secretary general.  The ruling party is in disarray ahead of crucial upper-house elections next month.

The dramatic developments occurred just days after Hatoyama said he had abandoned his campaign pledge to move Marine Air Station Futenma off crowded Okinawa. Instead, he would, with the United States, build a new American facility in Henoko, a less populated part of the island.  For months, the prime minister had been unable to make up his mind as to what to do, signaling change after change in his views. As a result of the controversial decision, announced Friday, the Social Democratic Party left the ruling three-party coalition. That triggered fresh calls for the increasingly unpopular Hatoyama to resign.

Hatoyama is the country’s 92nd prime minister — and the fifth in four years. Since the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi left office in September 2006 after serving a half decade, the country has endured a series of weak leaders, Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, and Taro Aso. Last August, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had ruled the country almost without interruption since 1955, lost to Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan in a landslide. Since then, the LDP has splintered and the DPJ has sunk in the polls.

So the question arises: Can anyone govern Japan? Everyone blames Hatoyama’s indecisiveness for his stunning fall from grace.  And he is no doubt responsible for the unfortunate turn of events, as he admitted today. “It is extremely sad that no one is listening to me anymore,” he said as he told the Japanese public he was leaving office. “That is all due to my own failings.”

Maybe not. Yes, Hatoyama is a “rich kid without experience and leadership skills” as one Tokyo academic bluntly labeled him.  And there is no doubt he fully earned his nickname, the “Alien.” But in fairness to the departing prime minister, he presided over a Japan that has lost its way.  As Douglas MacArthur perceptively noted, the Japanese are fearsome when they are on the offensive and aimless when they are not.

And at this moment, the people of Japan are still thinking about their nation and their role in the world, questioning almost everything. Their numbers are shrinking, their political system is disintegrating, and their ambitions are narrowing.  While this is happening, they are being overtaken by the Chinese, whom they both fear and admire. This year, in all probability, China will grab Japan’s title as the world’s second largest economy. The Chinese appear on the march throughout Asia, seemingly set to claim ownership of the century the Japanese were once supposed to dominate.

There is no consensus among Japan’s people as to what to do, and it will be hard for anyone, however capable, to govern them effectively. The most likely candidate to succeed the hapless Hatoyama is Finance Minister Naoto Kan. Other possibilities are Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, National Strategy Minister Yoshito Sengoku, and Minster of Land Seiji Maehara.