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Farewell to the Shadow Shoguns

TOKYO – It’s déjà vu all over again in Japan. Despite a landslide electoral victory for his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) last September, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned only 262 days after taking office. Sadly, abrupt changes of prime minister are practically an annual event in Japan nowadays, as Hatoyama’s resignation marks the fourth sudden transfer of power to a new leader in the past four years.

While in opposition, the DPJ bashed the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for flipping through leader after leader. With the DPJ now doing the same thing, the Japanese public is flabbergasted, and people are beginning to ask if there is something rotten in their political system.

Hatoyama’s inept handling of key national security issues played a key role in his undoing. He alienated his Social Democratic Party (SDP) allies by opting – after months of dithering – to honor an agreement with the United States ensuring the future of the Futenma Airbase on Okinawa. Having promised to shut the base in the campaign, and having also pushed for its removal while in office, Hatoyama’s reversal forced the Socialists to exit the coalition. The SDP had promised that the base would leave Japan.

Not only did Hatoyama lose a key coalition partner, but the man who put him in the premiership has also been forced out. DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa – the party’s shadowy power broker – resigned from his post simultaneously with Hatoyama. Ozawa’s aspiration to make the next election the grand finale of his political career by cementing the DPJ as a party of government now seems in jeopardy.

The Hatoyama government’s floundering was not confined to the issue of the US base on Okinawa. Indeed, it also grossly neglected to deal with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Miyazaki Prefecture, allowing the disease to spread out of control. Instead of overseeing the government’s management of the outbreak, Hirotaka Akamatsu, the minister of agriculture, forestry, and fishing, took a long trip to Cuba to meet Raúl Castro – a very strange decision given strained US-Japan relations. That trip further cemented the notion that the Hatoyama government was at root anti-American in the mindless way that former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was.

Having lost all support within his own party, Hatoyama had no choice but to resign. Forcing Ozawa to step down with him can perhaps be said to be Hatoyama’s only meaningful decision as prime minister, for Ozawa’s departure from the political scene – if it sticks – is the far more important event.

In the past, Ozawa was the LDP’s youngest Secretary General. A protégé of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, an infamous LDP kingpin, Ozawa’s political methods epitomized the worst aspects of the LDP’s old factional plutocracy. But in 1993, having failed to gain control of the party, he bolted, along with 45 other Diet members to create the Shinsei Party, supposedly to press for electoral reform.

With Japanese voters becoming supportive of new parties after decades of LDP rule, Shinsei gained tremendous traction and drove forward the creation of the first non-LDP coalition government since the mid-1950’s. But, as the LDP retained the most seats in the upper house, it soon forged a coalition with its long-time rivals, the Social Democrats, forcing Ozawa back into opposition.

In 1999, Ozawa seized control of the DPJ, which Hatoyama and Naoto Kan, the new prime minister, had founded. It took ten years to make a DPJ government possible, and only by forging a coalition with the Social Democrats. By shattering that coalition, Hatoyama destroyed the governing majority Ozawa had worked so cunningly to construct. With Ozawa gone, not only does the DPJ now have an opportunity to renew itself, but so does the LDP.

The danger in Japan’s game of prime-ministerial musical chairs is that this political wrangling diverts attention from the serious problems facing today’s Asia. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are now as high as at any time in decades, and China is engaged in a massive military build-up. Japan should be seeking to make a difference in securing stability in Asia, not playing sterile political games.

The rest of Asia might be content to sit back and watch the spectacle of Japan’s myopic politics if Japan’s inability to work to help stabilize the region did not matter so much. That Japan had nothing to offer Thailand in its moment of turmoil is testimony to how irrelevant Hatoyama’s leadership had made the country.

As a former finance minister, deputy prime minister, and the product of a grass-roots civil-society movement, Prime Minister Kan has his work cut out for him, particularly as it is rumored that Ozawa intends to topple him in the autumn. The likely ongoing instability within the DPJ makes it all the more important that the LDP seriously reform itself.

Although Ozawa retains considerable influence and so may be able to exercise his will on the DPJ, this must not be allowed to happen. For the politics of Tanaka and Ozawa produced an enfeeblement of Japan’s elected leaders in favor of behind-the-scenes party bosses. Of course, serious leaders like former prime ministers Yasahiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi were able to overcome this “shadow shogun” system over the years, but no democracy can depend on great leaders being elected every time there is a vote. Ozawa’s fall can – but may not – return Japanese politics to where it belongs: in the hands of its elected leaders.