Japan's Unendurable New Prime Minister

Japanese opposition camp leader Yukio Hatoyama, president of the Democratic Party of Japan, speaks to reporters at DPJ headquarters in Tokyo on July 31. Hatoyama criticized a policy platform set that Prime Minister Taro Aso's ruling Liberal Democratic Party unveiled the same day. (Kyodo via AP Images)
Kyodo via AP Images
When Emperor Hirohito, in his solemn address to the Japanese people in August of 1945, told his subjects that they must give up the fight and endure the unendurable, he certainly could not have foreseen the national humiliation of Yukio Hatoyama, Japan's new Prime-Minister-in-Waiting, writing a sentence so pompous and vacuous that even Bob Herbert winced:

"Let me conclude by quoting the words of Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, founder of the first popular movement for a united Europe, written 85 years ago in "Pan-Europa" (my grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, translated his book, "The Totalitarian State Against Man," into Japanese): "All great historical ideas started as a utopian dream and ended with reality. Whether a particular idea remains as a utopian dream or becomes a reality depends on the number of people who believe in the ideal and their ability to act upon it."

Choose your torture: a good waterboarding, some SERE training with the Special Forces, a Cher concert - I'd choose any of them over being trapped in a cocktail party, much less on an island, while being harangued by this bore about why he's the reincarnation of Themistocles.

And we still haven't begun talking about the substance of Hatoyama's ideas. Does evoking the slogan "liberté, égalité, fraternité" as his guiding philosophy qualify? Would Hatoyama realign Japan with Europe, which lacks the power-projection capacity to medevac its own wounded in Afghanistan, in the same way 1930's Poland gambled its security on an alliance with France? More likely, this refers to Hatoyama's pledge to throw money at the voters, with all the Gallic economic vigor that promises to bring.

It's all inoffensive enough until Hatoyama lectures us on the importance of diplomacy and multilateralism by gratuitously kicking Americans in the teeth and triangulating toward China:

"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?

"This is a question of concern not only to Japan but also to the small and medium-sized nations in Asia. They want the military power of the U.S. to function effectively for the stability of the region but want to restrain U.S. political and economic excesses. They also want to reduce the military threat posed by our neighbor China while ensuring that China's expanding economy develops in an orderly fashion. These are major factors accelerating regional integration."

It's tempting to read what follows as a plea for a new Co-Prosperity Sphere, but really, even Hatoyama knows that Japan could not lead one. Instead, he seems to be calling for a sort of Asian Union. Careful observers of China and Korea are already laughing. They know the extent of Japanese, Korean, and even Chinese protectionism, as well as what great domestic politics it makes for Chinese and Korean leaders to flog their historical grievances with Japan. My own visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo some years ago convinced me that those grievances aren't without merit. The shrine is more than a host to the remains of some of Japan's worst war criminals - along with many other Japanese soldiers who died with honor - it is also a museum and school for indoctrinating Japanese schoolchildren with a `we'll-win-next-time' distortion of that history that would land a European editorialist in the dock. Hatoyama's predecessors regularly offended billions of people by visiting the shine to honor those interred there. High-profile visits by Japanese leaders to a place that propagates fascist ideology and comingles its honored dead with mass murderers has made Japan a moral pariah to many Asians. This is why it's a bit hard to put too much stock in calls by any Japanese leader for multilateralism or historical reflection until Hatoyama breaks this bad old habit. Yet call, he does:

"The financial crisis has suggested to many that the era of U.S. unilateralism may come to an end. It has also raised doubts about the permanence of the dollar as the key global currency.

"I also feel that as a result of the failure of the Iraq war and the financial crisis, the era of U.S.-led globalism is coming to an end and that we are moving toward an era of multipolarity. But at present no one country is ready to replace the United States as the dominant country. Nor is there a currency ready to replace the dollar as the world's key currency. Although the influence of the U.S. is declining, it will remain the world's leading military and economic power for the next two to three decades."

For the life of me, I can't decipher just how Hatoyama supposes this will win him friends or influence people in the world's financial capital. Remember, this is the leader-in-waiting of a nation that achieved its prosperity by depressing the value of its currency in relation to the dollar. It's difficult to conceive of a nation that has been a greater beneficiary of American multilateralism in the last six decades than Japan. I even recall that the election of a chastened, humble, and multi-cultural Barack Obama would at least put an end to ankle-biting by our friends (after all, it was only Bush that everyone hated, not America, right?). So is Mr. Hatoyama's editorial good domestic politics, a display of personal spite, or something else?

The reference to Iraq is also gratuitous. It will offend Americans who support the effort in Iraq, give unease to those who inherited it, and do little to ingratiate Hatoyama to those who oppose it. Besides which, its premise is impossible to defend. We will all waste too much of the rest of our lives on post-hoc questions about Iraq whether was "worth it," all of which will be argued without knowing how events might have played out had we not gone in. The outcome in Iraq still depends on the Iraqi people, but simply consider: Saddam is removed as a threat to his neighbors and his subjects alike, his support for Hamas and other terrorist groups has ended, Al Qaeda has been ground down to a small core that can only carry out occasional spectacular attacks on Iraqis, the Shiite militias are cowed, and the the longer-term trends suggest that Iraq may yet achieve what passes for stability and prosperity in one of the world's most feral places. If John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Diane Feinstein didn't expect at least 4,000 dead when they were among the two-thirds of Congress that voted to authorize a war in one of the Middle East's most populous, divided, and radicalized nations - it also had one of the world's largest armies, which we fully expected would use chemical weapons - they were kidding themselves. Japan's minimal contribution to this effort ended years ago.

The point is that Hatoyama gains nothing from stirring this bitterness. Why say it, why say it now, and why say it in an American newspaper?

It suggests that Hatayama will opt for a suckle-and-bite policy toward America, one best exemplified by South Korea's dead leftist presidents, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, and the equally dead policies on which they gambled their legacies, and lost. They, too, triangulated toward China and North Korea. This didn't result in a kinder or gentler North Korea, fewer North Korean women sold as comfort women to Chinese men, or an end to China's barbaric repatriations of North Korean refugees - sometimes, with wires strung through their noses like fish on a line - to where gulags and firing squads awaited them. Nor did it put an end to nagging Korean suspicions that China would like to make North Korea the next Chosen Autonomous Zone. Roh and Kim's anti-Americanism eventually lost much of its domestic appeal, but did manage to alienate a large segment of American Korea-watchers who still question why one of the world's most prosperous nations still needs the presence of 29,500 American service members on its soil, and whom the Koreans treat like this. Questions of this sort outlast the bitterness when they have logic and economics going for them.

Or perhaps Hatoyama really does feel that triangulation toward China is the only way to stop President Obama from landing the Third Marine Division on the Spratly Islands. Even so, a truly independent diplomacy requires a certain escape velocity to overcome the gravitational pull of Japan's military dependence on America. Hatoyama is going to have much trouble achieving that despite a bad economy, an aging population, and his own come-hither seduction of financial promiscuity. The voters have seen enough stocking to demand satisfaction.

For a time, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun also profited from gratuitous anti-Americanism at the ballot box, but in the end, the voters weren't willing to pay for the independence that American taxpayers ought to have granted them decades ago. Japan's need for American assistance with missile defense is particularly acute - the Japanese people are still feeling vulnerable and angry about North Korea's threats, and its abduction of a still-unknown number of their citizens. President Bush's sudden reversal in de-listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism also left them feeling angry and betrayed, though in a way that probably underscored that dependence. That makes a dramatic reversal of Japan's North Korea policy unlikely, unless Hatoyama is willing to risk throwing away his mandate and splitting his party.

Still, Kim Jong Il will strive, as though his life depends on it, to tempt the new Prime Minister. If Kim Jong Il is beginning to feel the suffocating embrace of sanctions - and I suspect he is - Hatoyama is his highest hope for a weak link. He has already probed for one in Bill Clinton, Bill Richardson, and the Chairwoman of South Korea's Hyundai Asan corporation. If Kim Jong Il offered to return some abductees to Japan, Hatoyama would face a powerful temptation to break U.N. sanctions and pay the "reparations" that North Korea has long demanded.

This would be a gamble for Hatoyama, whose Democratic Party of Japan is hardly a leftist monolith. The DPJ is riven into factions that span Japan's wide political spectrum, and many of its members are defectors from the defeated Liberal Democratic Party. DPJ policy statements on North Korea don't suggest a dramatic policy shift any more than the economic realities do. When those realities catch up with Mr. Hatoyama, he will find his coalition under severe strain.

But then again, perhaps Mr. Hatoyama's utopian dreams will be tempered by reality in time to prevent that.

Joshua Stanton is an attorney in Washington DC and formerly served as U.S. Army Judge Advocate in Korea.

By Joshua Stanton:
Reprinted with permission from The New Ledger.