A Political Blue Blood on His Own Path

Japan's Hatoyama Defeats Party of His Forebears With Talk of Love and 'Human Ties'

Yukio Hatoyama, leader of Japan's main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, walks by his campaign poster with a smile on his face after a press briefing at the party headquarters in Tokyo, Japan.
Yukio Hatoyama, leader of Japan's main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, walks by his campaign poster with a smile on his face after a press briefing at the party headquarters in Tokyo, Japan. (Shizuo Kambayashi - AP)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

TOKYO, Aug. 31 -- Stiff, shy and very rich, Yukio Hatoyama cuts a curious figure for an opposition leader whose party laid waste Sunday to the most formidable political machine in the history of modern Japan.

Hatoyama, 62, who soon will become prime minister, has perhaps the bluest political blood in the land. But he is hardly a natural politician.

He has said that when he was studying for a doctorate in engineering at Stanford University, he spent many hours wondering what it was that made him avoid human relationships and turn away from all things political.

When he did enter the family business of politics in the 1980s, a faraway look, an eccentric manner and a wooden style of speaking caused him to be nicknamed "the alien." Part of it was the content of his speeches. He talks about how "politics is love," a formulation not often heard from ambitious Japanese politicians.

That message was honed in this summer's campaign to "putting people's lives first." In a promise that resonated with voters, he said his party would wrench power away from bureaucrats who serve the interests of big business. He said he wanted to create "a horizontal society bound by human ties, not a vertically connected society of vested interests."

In a childhood that echoed the cosseted intellectual ambitions of the New York Roosevelts, Hatoyama grew up in a splendid European-style family palace in Tokyo. There he collected insects and stamps with his little brother Kunio. He and his brother, who also grew up to be a politician, are believed to have assets of no less than $100 million.

Their grandfather was a prime minister and a founder of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had governed Japan as a virtual one-party state for more than half a century -- until Sunday.

That's when Yukio Hatoyama's Democratic Party rolled over the LDP in a historic landslide. For the first time in Japan's postwar history, voters gave an opposition party control of the government.

For Hatoyama, it was a victory that cut three ways against the family grain. Not only was his grandfather an LDP potentate but his father served in an LDP government as foreign minister and his brother had been an LDP minister in the government of Prime Minister Taro Aso, which voters slapped down Sunday.

The man who routed the party of his forebears came into politics with the help of that party. He became a private secretary to his father in 1983, and three years later, running for his father's seat, he was elected to the lower house of parliament.

It is one of the ironies of Japanese-style reform politics that Hatoyama's party, as part of its manifesto, has promised to ban inherited seats.

Hatoyama had had enough of the LDP by the early 1990s. He defected to a small opposition party and was a leader of a fragile eight-party coalition that briefly grabbed control of the lower house -- and tossed the LDP out of power. But the coalition fell apart in less than 11 months and the LDP again took control.

Hatoyama soon co-founded the Democratic Party -- a slightly left-of-center mix of disaffected LDP veterans, trade unionists, former bureaucrats and ex-socialists. The party jelled as a vote-winning force under the leadership of Ichiro Ozawa, a wily political strategist and former LDP power broker, surprising and humiliating the LDP in a 2007 election by winning control of the upper house of parliament. If the party also was able to win control of the lower house, which selects the government, Ozawa would become prime minister.

Then a campaign fundraising scandal forced Ozawa to resign as party leader in May, creating an opening for Hatoyama. After it became clear Sunday that voters had resoundingly rejected the LDP, Hatoyama thanked Ozawa on national television for engineering their party's victory.

As the long reign of the LDP demonstrates, Japanese voters tend to like continuity in government. For that reason, there are worries here about the new, largely untested leadership.

In polls and interviews, even voters who support the Democratic Party have expressed doubts about the experience and competence of its leaders. Many economic and political analysts say the party does not have a credible economic plan. It is highly doubtful, they say, that new leadership can deliver on promises to put more cash into the hands of consumers.

There are also doubts about Hatoyama's decisiveness and leadership skills. He has never held a major position in government, serving only in 1994 as a deputy cabinet spokesman for a government that soon collapsed.

But on the campaign trail this summer, his speeches became more engaging and his message more inspiring. He has developed a reputation as a gentle man, one who kneels and talks eye-to-eye with children and with elderly people in wheelchairs.

His political vision, he says, is a "spirit of fraternity." As he explains it, this means "every person should have a bond to society by making oneself useful and being needed."

In a country with record unemployment, a chronically stagnant economy, a staggering public debt and the most aged population in world history, that vision is soon to be tested.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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