Sunday, August 30, 2009

Japan’s Next Prime Minister Looks to Asia (and new PM Profile)

TOKYO: Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s next prime minister after Sunday’s elections, believes his country should shift its foreign policy and look less to the United States and more toward Asia. A center-left leader who has promised to shake up domestic politics after more than half a century of conservative rule, Hatoyama has also called for a “more equal” partnership with Washington, Tokyo’s traditional ally.

In an article published in The New York Times last week, Hatoyama launched a spirited critique of US-style capitalism and “market fundamentalism,” which he called “void of morals or moderation” and said harmed people’s lives. Not mincing his words, he predicted that “as a result of the failure of the Iraq war and the financial crisis, the era of US-led globalism is coming to an end and that we are moving toward an era of multi-polarity.”

Looking to Asia

Hatoyama, head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), stressed that “the Japan-US security pact will continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy,” just as it has been since the end of World War II. “But at the same time, we must not forget our identity as a nation located in Asia,” he wrote. “I believe that the East Asian region, which is showing increasing vitality, must be recognized as Japan’s basic sphere of being.”

Hatoyama pointed to the fast rise of China, set to eclipse Japan as the world’s number two economy, and called for the creation of an Asian community with a common currency based on the model of the European Union. For now, he said, the US dollar remains the world currency, but he hinted at a looming decline of Washington’s influence, saying only “it will remain the world’s leading military and economic power for the next two to three decades.” For observers in the US, the article was the clearest indication yet of the 62-year-old Hatoyama’s worldview, with his party expected to win in a landslide against Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Under more than a half century of Liberal Democratic Party rule, Japan has maintained close ties with the superpower that defeated it in World War II and has protected it since, now basing 47,000 troops in the country and providing a nuclear deterrence.

Emulating the US

Despite trade disputes and friction about US bases on its soil, Japan largely emulated the US free market model as it rose from the ashes of war to become Asia’s top economy, while keeping a low profile on the world stage. Under former LDP premier Junichiro Koizumi, Tokyo’s relations with Beijing badly deteriorated as he made repeated visits to a controversial Tokyo war shrine, as ties simultaneously strengthened with Washington.

Koizumi even sent non-combat troops to support US President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, the first time post-World War II officially pacifist Japan deployed soldiers to a war zone.

For years in opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan—which includes ruling party defectors and former socialists in its mixed ranks—opposed Japan’s joining “American wars” and called for a reduction of US bases on its territory. The DPJ has also said it would not renew a naval mission that has supported the US-led war in Afghanistan when its current mandate expires next year, although it welcomed the election of President Barack Obama and pointed to similarities between their Democratic parties.

Just political rhetoric

When the DPJ takes power, observers said it was unlikely to quickly or radically shift foreign policy, despite the campaign-season rhetoric, opting instead for a pragmatic approach.

Whether change is fast or gradual, Hatoyama has made it clear that he supports a fresh look at Japan’s role in a 21st century world. A key question for Japan, he wrote in The New York Times, is this: “How should Japan maintain its political and economic independence and protect its national interest when caught between the United States, which is fighting to retain its position as the world’s dominant power, and China, which is seeking ways to become dominant?”

Profile of opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama

Just like his main rival in the Japanese general election, Yukio Hatoyama is the grandson of a former prime minister and son of a former foreign minister.

Born in Tokyo in 1947, Hatoyama studied engineering at the prestigious University of Tokyo before going on to Stanford University - coincidentally where his rival in Sunday's election, the prime minister Taro Aso, also studied.

Hatoyama began his political career in 1986, when he took over the seat of his father, Ichiro Hatoyama, in Hokkaido, although heriditary seats have since become one of the first political traditions that his party has promised to eradicate after taking power.Elected to the House of Representatives, he was quickly disillusioned with the Liberal Democratic Party - although his brother, Kunio, was until recently in the cabinet.

He joined a splinter group in 1993 to set up the now-defunct New Party Sakigake. Shortly before the party was dissolved, he again jumped ship to become a founding member of the Democratic Party of Japan, acting as its president between September 1999 and December 2002.

A coalition of minor opposition parties, it was initially unable to topple the remarkably popular prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, but since his resignation has grown into a more cohesive union that has fared well in both regional and national elections in the last three years.

Ichiro Ozawa joined the party in 2003 and became leader in 2006 with the explicit aim of replacing the LDP in power. That personal ambition was thwarted in May when a funding scandle forced him to resign, leaving the way open for Hatoyama to again assume the leadership on May 16.Seen as middle of the road politically, critics have in the past derided his policies as having the consistency of ice cream that has been left in the sun. But he also has a habit of speaking his mind.

Hatoyama's key policy pledges include eradicating wasteful spending, funding the public pension system through tax revenues, raising disposable household income by 20 per cent, increasing local governments' autonomy and distancing Tokyo diplomatically and militarily from the United States.

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