Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigns
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.