By Blaine Harden
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; 5:03 AM
SEOUL -- Having squandered a historic electoral mandate in nine months, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned Wednesday, forcing his Democratic Party of Japan to scramble to find a new leader before a pivotal election in early July.
The kingmaker of the ruling party, veteran politician Ichiro Ozawa, also quit Wednesday, after his ties to fundraising scandals had soured voters on the DPJ's leadership. Sometimes called the "Shadow Shogun," Ozawa was the political mastermind behind a landslide victory that last August ended nearly half a century of one-party rule in Japan, when the DPJ trounced the Liberal Democratic Party and Hatoyama took control of the government.
Hatoyama's popularity collapsed, in large measure, because he could not make up his mind. He spent months sending contradictory signals -- to Japanese voters and to the Obama administration -- over where to put a noisy U.S. Marine airbase on the southern island of Okinawa.
His final decision, which came Friday, pleased the Americans, keeping the Marines and their howling helicopters on the crowded island. But it enraged Okinawans and left most Japanese voters with the impression that Hatoyama was an incompetent and vacillating leader.
"It is unfortunate that people have come gradually to not listen [to my government] and I realize that I am to blame," Hatoyama said, in announcing his resignation at a meeting of party leaders.
Polls in recent days have shown that support for his government had fallen to 17 percent. A small party -- a key to his party's control of the upper house of parliament -- abandoned Hatoyama's ruling coalition over the weekend.
The DPJ may choose a new leader -- who would quickly become prime minister -- as early as Friday. The front-runner appeared to be Finance Minister Naoto Kan, who announced Wednesday afternoon that he wants the job. On a trip to the United States in April, he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery -- a visit that one senior diplomat described as a "campaign stop."
Kan won a reputation for outspoken independence in the mid-1990s, when he disclosed a government coverup of HIV-tainted blood that infected thousands of hemophilia patients with the virus that causes AIDS.
Also being mentioned as contenders are National Strategy Minister Yoshito Sengoku, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Minister of Land Seiji Maehara.
Hatoyama blamed his handling of the Okinawa issue for his failure as prime minister. But he insisted that Japan needs a strong security relationship with the United States and said that his decision to keep the U.S. base was in the country's best interest.
"I hope you understand my pained grief that we must sustain trust between Japan and the United States," he said, noting that the March sinking of a South Korean warship, apparently by North Korea, shows that "security has not been secured in Northeast Asia."
At some point in the distant future, Hatoyama said, Japan will not need the security umbrella provided by the United States, nor will it have to accommodate the "burden" of hosting tens of thousands of Americans troops. But he said that "is not possible in my era" to secure regional peace without Japan's partnership with the United States.
When his party won power last year, Hatoyama and the DPJ had insisted that Japan needed to assert more independence from the U.S. government in shaping its foreign policy. His resignation -- at a time when North Korea's unpredictable threat appears to be growing and China's military power is expanding -- suggests that a new Japanese leader will not similarly test the country's security alliance with Washington.
Hatoyama, a wealthy man and the grandson of a former prime minister, said that his popularity and the support for his party were also undone by the issue of money. He had been linked to financial improprieties in fundraising activities by an aide.
"We strove to bring about politics that is clean," he said. "But it turned out that I had a former secretary that had violated the law . . . I am very sorry for creating great trouble to everyone, and for forcing the public to come to terms with why the head of the clean Democratic Party of Japan was involved in such issue."
Money in politics also led to Ozawa's decision to quit, Hatoyama said. "Everyone knows this issue lies with Ozawa, too," Hatoyama said. "I consulted with him and said to him, 'I will resign, and I would like you to resign, too, to make our party clean.' Ozawa said he understood."
Hatoyama's unusual frankness -- especially in the murky context of Japanese politics -- won a standing ovation from his audience of DPJ lawmakers, many of whom have been demanding in recent days that he quit. Political commentators were also astounded -- and impressed -- by the candidness of Hatoyama's remarks.
Thanks to last year's election win, the DPJ holds a commanding majority in the lower house of parliament, the body that chooses the prime minister and has the greatest say in controlling the government.
But analysts say that the DPJ may lose ground in the July 11 election for the upper house, which could cripple the party's capacity to pass laws.
Hatoyama, 63, was never a natural politician. Stiff and shy, he has a doctorate in engineering from Stanford University and has said that he spent many hours there wondering what it was that made him avoid human relationships. After he entered politics in the 1980s, his faraway look, an eccentric manner and wooden style of speaking caused him to be nicknamed "the alien" by the press and even by some of his political supporters.
In announcing Tuesday that he was quitting, Hatoyama referred to his odd reputation -- but suggested he was merely looking further into the future than more conventional politicians.
"People call me alien but my understanding is that I seem that way because I am talking about Japan in five, 10, 20 years," he said.
Hatoyama won his party's nod as prime minister because the DPJ's longtime leader, Ozawa, had seen his popularity collapse due to questions over his fundraising activities.
In a sense, Hatoyama was a kind of placeholder for Ozawa, who continued to work in background as the party's chief political strategist. There had been widespread speculation that at some point Ozawa might take over from Hatoyama, but that talk ended when new fundraising abuses were linked to Ozawa and his perceived electability collapsed.
Analysts and diplomats predicted that Finance Minister Naoto Kan could succeed Hatoyama. On a trip to the United States in April, Kan laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery -- a visit that one senior diplomat described as a "campaign stop."
Correspondent John Pomfret in Beijing and special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo contributed to this report.