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.

Japan’s next leader, whoever he is, will be leery of supporting the transfer of the air station from Futenma to Henoko. Now, there are only two politically acceptable arrangements, at least as far as the Okinawans are concerned. They are either moving the Marines at Futenma to another American military facility, such as the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base, or transferring them from the island, presumably to Guam.

But circumstances are changing in Japan. Left on their own, the Japanese could take another decade to decide what to do with Futenma — and decades more to decide on their nation’s next direction. But Japan has adversaries. In the prosperous times after the Cold War, the Japanese people could either take their nation’s half-century alliance with the United States for granted or think it was unneeded.  Yet with a resurgent China and an increasingly dangerous North Korea, the alliance is taking on new meaning.

The March sinking of the Cheonan, the South Korean frigate, evidently helped Hatoyama decide on endorsing the Henoko plan, despite the fierce opposition of local residents. Why?  The Marines now at Futenma are considered backup for the 28,500 American service personnel in nearby South Korea.

Moreover, the encroachment of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy in Japanese waters this decade was also a factor in Hatoyama’s Henoko decision. In April, for instance, Chinese surface combatants and submarines exercised 90 miles southwest of ... Okinawa, and a Chinese helicopter came within 300 feet of a Japanese destroyer monitoring Beijing’s fleet. In the past, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force had tracked Chinese subs slinking across the bottom of waters adjacent to Japan in violation of international conventions on innocent passage. China wants islands that are generally recognized as Japan’s and disputes the extent of the Exclusive Economic Zone claimed by Tokyo.

China, in short, can be the catalyst, the straw that stirs the Japanese drink. Beijing, by making Japan’s people feel insecure in their own homeland, can give Hatoyama’s successor more leeway to come up with a reasonable arrangement with the Pentagon over Futenma — and help the Japanese find a common purpose. In other words, if the Chinese continue to challenge Japan, Tokyo’s next leader could be the one to define his nation for the next generation.