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With Friends Like Us

How the Obama administration helped topple the Japanese prime minister.

Japan has a new prime minister, Naoto Kan, but he comes from the same party—the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)—as Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned last Wednesday. He will almost surely want to continue Hatoyama's policies of strengthening Japan’s political democracy and forging an independent foreign policy that is allied with the United States, but not subordinate to it.

If Kan follows that course, he will undoubtedly displease much of Japan’s establishment, which still identifies with the defeated Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that Hatoyama's party trounced in last year's election. And he may also displease the Obama administration. President Obama and his top aides may not have given the final twist to the knife that Japan’s establishment lodged in Hatoyama’s back. But their fingerprints are nonetheless all over the hilt.

How and why did this happen? We have to go back to the election of August 2009 that swept Hatoyama and the DPJ into office. This was no ordinary handover of power. Rather, DPJ leaders had campaigned on a platform of fundamentally overhauling the way in which Japan is governed. They promised to take key policy decisions out of the hands of an elite corps of bureaucrats and lodge them with politicians answerable to an electorate. On the strength of this pledge, the DPJ defeated a LDP that had, since its inception in 1955, functioned not so much as governors but as power brokers—running interference between the bureaucracy and other key power groups in Japanese society, including business, finance, small shopkeepers, and farmers.

The architect of the DPJ victory was Ichiro Ozawa. Ozawa is a political genius. His combination of tactical mastery of the minutiae of electoral politics with clearly articulated views of what is wrong with his country invites comparison with such similarly transformative figures as Margaret Thatcher and Newt Gingrich. Ozawa had started his career as a key disciple of the formidable Kakuei Tanaka, prime minister from 1972-1974 and mentor of a whole roster of important LDP figures. But in the early ‘90s, in the wake of the collapse of Japan’s so-called bubble economy, Ozawa walked out of the LDP, taking a number of Japan’s brightest young politicians with him to found the Japan Renewal Party—the first of several opposition parties he helped form and lead in an ongoing effort to construct a credible alternative to the LDP.

Ozawa had become convinced that Japan’s economic stagnation—the dimensions of which were then just becoming clear—was not simply a technical problem that could be solved by the right mix of fiscal and monetary policies. Rather, in his view, the inability of the country to extricate itself from its woes stemmed directly from the way in which it was governed. Specifically, Japan needed a political infrastructure capable of changing course—something that bureaucrats, no matter how capable, are congenitally unable to do. He wrote a book in which he called for Japan to become a “normal nation.” By this, he meant that elected officials should actually originate and be accountable for policy rather than simply provide political cover for decisions taken elsewhere. And he also wrote that in the wake of the end of the Cold War, Japan needed to assume responsibility for its own security and its foreign relations rather than relying reflexively on the United States.

In 1993, Ozawa had pried enough discontented legislators out of the LDP to form a coalition that deprived it for the first time since its founding of a parliamentary majority. But he and his allies were insufficiently prepared to exercise power. And the Japanese public was not yet convinced things were bad enough to trust them for long. After they were turned out in 1994, they bided their time, recruiting new figures to their ranks and building alliances throughout the country, carefully picking off one group of erstwhile LDP supporters after another. In 2003, Ozawa and his allies joined forces with the DPJ that had been formed in 1998—Kan and Hatoyama had, respectively, been the DPJ's first two presidents.

It would take Japan’s economic tailspin after September 2008, however, to bring about the conditions for the second coming of Ozawa and his allies. As Japan's exports tumbled and its GDP shrunk, it became evident to just about everyone that the existing power-holders had no idea what to do. A DPJ electoral landslide was inevitable.

But the prospect of Ozawa as Japan's prime minister galvanized all those who were comfortably established with the way things were. Precisely because of the real threat he represents to the entrenched order, he is widely hated and feared—not simply by the bureaucracy and the LDP, but by whole swathes of the business, media, and academic elites. The public prosecutor announced an investigation into Ozawa's relationship with some unsavory developers in his home district, an investigation trumpeted and amplified in the mainstream press. Like any ambitious and successful politician in Japan and elsewhere—think of Obama and convicted Chicago developer Tony Rezko—Ozawa has had dealings with people who didn’t fit the squeaky-clean, civics-class ideal of politics held out by the high-minded editorial writers of Japan's quality press. But the timing and inordinate attention paid to these relationships of Ozawa's struck many observers as a deliberate and desperate attempt to derail the DPJ steamroller.

The ensuing media and prosecutorial circus of a type familiar to Americans—think of Whitewater—did not prevent the DPJ victory. But Ozawa was indeed forced to stand down as the party's candidate for prime minister. In his place, the DPJ settled on Hatoyama, a scion of one of Japan's oldest and most distinguished political families (Hatoyama's grandfather had been one of the founders of the LDP). Hatoyama had the sort of diffident demeanor that appeals to many Japanese voters—intelligence without arrogance—and with his mix of an international background (he has a Ph.D. from Stanford) and sterling credentials, he seemed a safe, unthreatening choice. Ozawa stayed on as Secretary General of the DPJ, masterminding the party's campaign tactics. It struck many at the time as the best of both worlds: Ozawa's revolutionary platform had been entrusted to a reliable blue blood who would not offend more sensibilities than was absolutely necessary.

The DPJ won a smashing victory and it appeared the party was on course to effect a transformation as far-reaching as any in Japan's modern history. But its leaders didn’t reckon with the virulence and determination of those who saw Hatoyama and his ministers as Ozawa's puppets.

The refusal to accept the DPJ's electoral mandate and the systematic, relentless attempts to undermine it will remind Americans of the scorched-earth tactics used by the Republican Party against Bill Clinton and now against Obama. But there are critical differences. Clinton's and Obama's enemies have included both faux and genuine populists, while much of the American establishment—particularly in media, academic, and legal circles—is on the Democrats' side. “Liberal elites” is not a meaningless epithet in the United States.

But in Japan, the establishment closed ranks against the DPJ. The public prosecutor trumpeted minor irregularities in Hatoyama's finances—to wit, that his mother gave him some money he had forgotten to report—and brought charges against two of Ozawa's aides. The Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading newspaper of record, subjected Hatoyama and Ozawa to daily streams of innuendo and vitriol with a relentlessness that would have been admired by Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. It was as if Obama had to govern in an America where Roger Ailes ran The New York Times, while Harvard and the Brookings Institution were controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife.

The critical difference, though, between Obama's opponents and the DPJ's enemies is that the latter have been able to play on and directly enlist the sympathy of a foreign power. And not just any foreign power, but a United States that is totally intertwined with the Japanese political order. Ever since the CIA financed the LDP's founding in 1955, the goals of LDP power-brokering have included providing political cover to the large American military presence in Japan. Just as LDP politicians would pass around the pork to secure cooperation with whatever policy the Ministry of Finance decided might be necessary, they used a mixture of construction contracts and covert subversion of left-wing groups to neutralize any opposition to Japan's incorporation into American military planning and operations.

The LDP and its allies in the Japanese establishment were thus able to make a credible argument in Washington that the DPJ posed a mortal danger to the very structure of the U.S.-Japan security arrangements. Hegel wrote of the intimate knowledge slaves by necessity have of their masters. Having tied their fortunes so tightly to the United States—or, more generously, having had them tied by history and circumstance—Japan's power-holders in the LDP and the bureaucracy, in business, finance, media, and academia have, since the 1950s, built an elaborate and sophisticated infrastructure of relationships and institutions in the United States capable of detecting and acting on the most subtle shifts in American opinion where Japan is concerned—and, when necessary, influencing it. A generation of American trade negotiators can testify to the formidable nature of this apparatus. 

But until last August, these “agents of influence,” as the title ofa controversial book on the subject put it, were deployed to achieve Japanese government objectives. Now they were brought out to undermine them. Any American seen able to influence Washington's Japan policy was fed a predictable line: Hatoyama was “weak and vacillating,” the DPJ was filled with “amateurs,” and, most damning, Ozawa was “anti-American.”

This was only one prong of the full-court press used against Hatoyama and Ozawa, but it was the one that worked. And it worked largely because of the situation in Okinawa.

Okinawa has, since 1945, formed the lynchpin of the American military presence in East Asia. But that position is becoming progressively untenable—a stark reality about which both the United States and Japan's traditional establishment is in almost complete denial. About one-third the size of Long Island, Okinawa is actually closer to Taiwan than to the main Japanese islands. For much of its history, it formed the nucleus of an independent kingdom that only came under Japanese control in the seventeenth century and was not incorporated into Japan proper until 1879.

During World War II, Okinawa suffered horrendous devastation, and many Okinawans believe they were deliberately marked as cannon fodder by Japan's wartime government. Okinawa stayed under American occupation for some two decades after sovereignty was restored to the rest of Japan. Even when nominal rule of the island passed from Washington back to Tokyo in 1972, the island continued to be honeycombed with American military facilities and crawling with American soldiers.

Mainland Japanese were, in essence, shoving the costs of their abdication of responsibility for their own security onto what were widely seen as a second class people, the Okinawans. And the latter resented it bitterly. But it did not become an intractable political problem until the mid ’90s, when the rape of a 12 year old local girl by American soldiers brought opposition to a fever pitch. This opposition focused particularly on the Futenma Marine Air Station, which is located in the midst of a crowded urban area. After protracted negotiations with Tokyo, the Pentagon agreed in 2006 to move the base. But it turned out that the planned replacement was to be a new and arguably even more intrusive facility in a part of the island that has much of what little is left of the island's original coral reefs, as well as several rare marine species—all of which would surely be destroyed by the new facility.

The LDP had traditionally managed to smother Okinawan opposition to the American military presence with a mixture of payoffs to local construction executives and periodic use of thugs to break up demonstrations by base opponents. But Hatoyama had specifically promised during the campaign that he would re-open the base issue and negotiate a better agreement for Okinawa. Okinawans voted in droves for the DPJ.

It was all part of the larger DPJ attempt to re-think the relationship with the United States, to transform Japan from what I have argued is essentially a protectorate into a genuine ally. Hatoyama and Ozawa seemed, alas, to take at face value all the talk coming from the Obama administration of a new approach to the world after the bully-boy belligerence of the George W. Bush White House. They thought they could sit down with Obama and his top aides and work out a modus vivendi that would take into account the needs of both countries, the political demands on both governments, and the changing security situation in East Asia.

But they were wrong. Beginning with a visit by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Japan in October 2009, administration officials treated Hatoyama and his top people with a contempt that bordered on open hostility. They refused even to discuss the possibility of re-opening negotiations on the Futenma replacement agreement.

It is clear that the White House had simply swallowed whole the lines stemming from the “agents of influence”: that this was a weak government, led by people who were anti-American, and that if the United States would simply hold firm and treat Hatoyama as if he were Hugo Chavez or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he would not last.

The tactics worked, helped by the fortuitous (for the DPJ's enemies) sinking of a South Korean warship on March 26, by what appears to be a North Korean torpedo. Many Japanese see North Korea as Japan's only real threat and, without giving the matter much thought, tend to regard the U.S. military as their principal shield against what is regularly depicted in the Japanese media as a regime of mad dogs in Pyongyang. The attack bolstered what the Asahi and others were saying; that the relationship with the United States was too important to allow blundering by Hatoyama to endanger it; that he could not deliver on the campaign promises he had made to the Okinawans.

It is true that Hatoyama himself contributed to his downfall. He does indeed come across as diffident and dilatory, even a bit of a space cadet (although no more so than his immediate predecessor, the LDP's Taro Aso). There were other issues as well: backpedaling on campaign promises involving highway tolls and welfare spending, as well as continued background noise on Ozawa's supposedly scandalous methods.But it was Okinawa that brought on the crisis. When Hatoyama caved and announced that he would not, after all, persist in trying to renegotiate the Futenma removal agreement, Okinawa rose in outrage, prompting the departure of a minor party from the DPJ's governing coalition.

For the time being, much of the Japanese public seems to blame Hatoyama's shortcomings rather than Washington for what happened, but the White House should avoid self-congratulation. Okinawa has been thoroughly and completely radicalized. The Futenma replacement agreement can now be implemented only by the overwhelming and politically ruinous application of brute force, something that no government in Tokyo is really willing to follow through on, no matter what promises are made. The notion that an LDP with the political will to smother Okinawan outrage can be voted back into power is a pipe dream.

In the meantime, Japan has a new prime minister. Naoto Kan is everything Hatoyama is not: middle class rather than upper; straight-speaking as opposed to diffident; someone with a well-earned reputation as “Mr. Clean”; and, apparently, more independent of Ozawa. Indeed, Kan defeated a little-known opponent who was supposedly Ozawa's chosen candidate for the DPJ nod, but this may well have been simply a bit of political Kabuki. Rather than weakening the DPJ, Hatoyama's replacement by Kan may actually enhance the DPJ chances of winning the Upper House elections this summer, thereby strengthening its hold on Japan's formal institutions of government.

In a phone call on Sunday with Obama that the president requested, Kan is reported to have promised to fulfill the Futenma agreement. But the White House should not imagine that with a tactically more capable prime minister in place and with Ozawa out of the picture, Kan will have any more political room to make the agreement stick than did Hatoyama. For one thing, Ozawa is not necessarily out of the picture—in Japan, retirement does not mean an end to influence; more often the reverse is true. Making a deliberate enemy of someone like Ozawa was shortsighted and foolish—not to mention ungrateful: Back in 1991, Ozawa banged heads together in Tokyo to raise money to help finance the first Gulf War. It was the largest financial contribution that any nation made.

More broadly, even if Kan's rise heralds a gradual loosening of Ozawa's influence, DPJ members are unlikely to forgive and forget the way in which Washington deliberately undermined the Hatoyama government and allowed itself to be used by the DPJ's enemies.

The United States has long complained that Japan seems incapable of acting like a serious country; that most of its people live in a never-never land of wishful thinking on security issues while its leadership cannot seem to act decisively—whether that be a matter of dealing with longstanding economic problems or equipping a military establishment with the actual means to deal with the threats Japan faces. But the political setup that produces this irresponsibility is of Washington's doing—it's the way a vassal state can be expected to behave. And while President Obama is not answerable for the stunted sovereignty that forms the most enduring legacy of the American occupation in Japan, he can be blamed for the complicity of his administration in blocking efforts to transform Japan into a politically mature democracy.

For the underlying subtext of last week's events is that the United States may really after all prefer vassals to allies. And that, despite the shift in tone since Obama became president, there is precious little real evidence that he is prepared to do what it takes to demonstrate that the era is over in which a top American official can crow, “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

The United States can probably, if it wishes, continue to frustrate the DPJ’s efforts to change the way Japan is governed. It can provoke yet another political crisis over Futenma that would see Kan go the way of Hatoyama, unable to reconcile Washington's peremptory demands with the boiling rage in Okinawa. But if the administration remains determined to stymie Japan's political evolution, Tokyo may over time begin exploring alternatives to continued subservience to Washington.

Just two days before Hatoyama resigned, China's premier, Wen Jiabao, was in Japan. His respectful public approach differed dramatically from that of Obama during the April Nuclear Security Summit when he took the advice of his aides to limit Hatoyama to no more than ten minutes of his time, as if the democratically elected leader of the world's second largest economy were a naughty schoolboy from whom a teacher was ostentatiously withdrawing favor.

Beijing probably does not want to see an independent, sovereign Japan either. But if Washington continues to disrupt Japan's political evolution, if Tokyo is forced to settle for vassalage to one of the two great powers with which its future is inextricably linked, it may eventually come to align itself with the one that understands face and provides at least an outward show of respect and non-interference in domestic affairs.

R. Taggart Murphy is Professor in the MBA Program in International Business at the Tokyo campus of Tsukuba University. He is the author of The Weight of the Yen and, with Akio Mikuni, of Japan's Policy Trap.  

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