Japan Seeks Political Stability After Another Prime Minister Resigns

BY Larisa Epatko  June 2, 2010 at 7:25 PM EST


Photo of Yukio Hatoyama by Yoshikazu Tsuno – Pool/Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama quit Wednesday after eight months in office, amid a campaign-funding scandal and backlash from his decision not to relocate a U.S. Marine air base off Okinawa island.

Hatoyama’s approval ratings plunged after he decided to uphold an agreement with the United States to keep the U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma on Okinawa, though move it to a different part of the island, outraging local residents there. His decision to step aside — ahead of parliamentary elections on July 11 — is viewed as an attempt to try to help his Democratic Party’s chances at the polls.

President Obama and a newly elected Hatoyama met in November with a shared goal of deepening the two countries’ partnership. “Our alliance will endure and our efforts will be focused on revitalizing that friendship so that it’s even stronger and more successful in meeting the challenges of the 21st century,” Mr. Obama said at the time.

Steve Clemons wrote in his blog, The Washington Note, that Hatoyama buckled under pressure from President Obama to keep the air base on Okinawa, while Josh Rogin reported in Foreign Policy’s The Cable that U.S. administration officials said they were trying to work out the base problem in a way that both sides could defend domestically.

The ruling Democratic Party will choose a new leader on Friday, and the leading candidate is reportedly Finance Minister Naoto Kan. If elected, he would become Japan’s fifth premier in four years.

“The commentary in Tokyo this morning and around the world, frankly, is all about here we go again, another Japanese prime minister has resigned after barely a year in office,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Stabilizing Japanese politics, at least stabilizing Japanese political leadership is probably one of the highest priorities right now.”

That will be a difficult task, Smith continued, because “for the first time in half a century, you have a new political party and a major massive political transition.” But stability is needed for Japan to tackle many issues, including economic growth, putting their fiscal house in order, addressing the needs of an aging society, and diplomatic and security priorities in foreign policy, she said.

As for the future of the Marine base agreement, several upcoming elections might affect its implementation, said Smith.

Following Japan’s upper house elections in July, the Democratic Party of Japan — which will remain in power with a 308-seat majority in the lower house — will have to decide how to move forward on the base plan. In November, there is a gubernatorial election in Okinawa, where the base issue is expected to loom large.

“The agreement in effect provides a direction forward, but the domestic politics inside Japan will ultimately shape the way the implementation of that agreement is pursued,” said Smith.

In this audio excerpt, Smith describes the connection between Hatoyama’s decision on the Marine base and his ultimate resignation: