Change in Japan Won't Be Easy

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, September 28, 2009

Just as the health-care debate was showing how hard it is to translate the slogan of change into reality, newly inaugurated Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama swept into New York, branding himself as the Barack Obama of Japan.

By voting for change, Hatoyama told me during an interview last week, "each individual in the United States has gained vitality within themselves. We too, by changing our closed politics, have been able to generate vitality within each individual in Japan."

Personally the two leaders could not be more different: Hatoyama is oddly affectless rather than charismatic, and born into a family of long-standing wealth and power.

Yet to Japan watchers, his ascent is, in its way, as path-breaking as Obama's. By leading his left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to a smashing victory last month, he broke a half-century of virtually uninterrupted rule by the right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). And with an overwhelming majority in the lower house of the Diet, Hatoyama may have an easier time enacting his change agenda than Obama is finding in the Senate Finance Committee.

But is there a coherent agenda? To the United Nations last week, Hatoyama brought a promise to reduce Japan's greenhouse gas emissions by far more than his predecessors had pledged. At home, meanwhile, his government is reducing the gasoline tax, fulfilling one of many populist promises his party made to win election.

When I asked about this apparent contradiction, Hatoyama insisted, against considerable evidence, that the price of gasoline doesn't have much effect on demand -- and that, in any case, policies that send emissions in a "negative direction" will be "overcome with technological progress."

In his essence, Hatoyama comes across as deeply conservative. He promises to hold back the forces of globalization and preserve the communitarian Japan of small shops, face-to-face neighborliness and humane decency. His guiding philosopher seems to be the half-Austrian, half-Japanese Count Richard Nikolaus von Coudenhove-Kalergi (1894-1972). Coudenhove-Kalergi (in case you've forgotten) was a pioneering proponent of European integration in the first half of the last century, and also of a spirit of "fraternity" that he thought could take the world beyond socialism and capitalism.

"If we look at Japan today, I feel that this spirit of fraternity is lacking," Hatoyama told me. "That is why I am advocating the change we need to revive fraternity."

That change, he explained, involves the "need to apply brakes" when market forces become excessive. "Politics should play a greater role on behalf of humanity or the weak," he said.

In an article he published online in the New York Times just before the election, Hatoyama cited Coudenhove-Kalergi (whose work Hatoyama's grandfather translated into Japanese) as an inspiration also for his foreign policy, advocating a kind of East Asian integration that would protect Japan and other Asian nations from both "U.S. political and economic excesses" and "the military threat posed by our neighbor China."

In what would be a radical departure from Japan's reliance on its alliance with the United States, he added: "It is also the appropriate path for protecting Japan's political and economic independence and pursuing our interests in our position between the United States and China."

Since his ascension, though, Hatoyama has stressed that he views the U.S.-Japan relationship as the foundation of Japan's foreign policy. He told me that his concept of East Asian integration has room both for "the eventual inclusion of the United States" and for China, too. "A very attractive idea would be to start with joint development of oil in the East China Sea between Japan and China," he said.

Given the diverse views within his ruling coalition, a degree of inconsistency should come as no surprise. It may reflect, too, the ambivalence many Japanese feel: resentment of U.S. high-handedness, but nervousness about expanding Chinese power and North Korean nuclear weapons; pride in their pacifist postwar constitution, but a desire for greater global leadership and respect.

Such inconsistencies helped end Japan's only other experiment in non-LDP leadership, in 1994, after less than a year. This time, the DPJ's huge majority may give it a larger cushion -- which Hatoyama acknowledged he may need.

"I think there will be various trials and errors," Hatoyama warned as he took office. "I think there will be failures." He might have added: Barack Obama would understand. Change is never easy.

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