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Published:January 21st, 2010 17:00 EST
Japanese PM Hatoyama falls on hard times

Japanese PM Hatoyama falls on hard times

By Geoff Dean

 He won a recent election in an unprecedented landslide. Fevered commentators were talking about a possible "permanent" transformation of the political landscape. There was a massive call for change and the leader had approval ratings through the roof.

 A short time later, he is buffeted by ever increasing disapproval ratings, his policies have vacillated and stalled, his allies have begun to consider jumping ship, and he struggles to put a brave face on things by declaring that now is not the time for partisan politics, but action on pressing issues.

 Does this remind anyone of a certain US politician that rhymes with...well, what does Obama rhyme with, anyway? That was the intention. Clever, huh? But actually, (drum roll, please), I am referring to Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (Oops, I gave that away in the title. So much for dramatic irony!)

 The PM has fallen harder and faster than even his American counterpart. Even before his election, there were rumors of financial scandal swirling around Mr. Hatoyama, due to money received as a gift from his fabulously wealthy mother and not registered for proper taxation. The PM claimed it was an "oversight" but it made a bad impression on people who were looking for a leader to solve the economic crisis and reduce waste in the national budget. Still, frustration with the long ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its endless corruption scandals, gaffes, and perceived incompetence, was such that the Democratic Party and Hatoyama won in a landslide, anyway.

 The PM initially received high marks for his handling of the economic crisis and his attempts to cut down the bureaucracy and eliminate pork-barrel spending, endemic and not even bothered to be covered up, in Japan.

 Things began to go sour when he started to deal with the Futenma base relocation issue. The Democrats had promised the people of Okinawa that the base would be moved out of the prefecture. Fellow coalition party, the Social Democrats, were calling for it to be moved out of Japan completely, presumably to Guam. The US government responded that the previous Japanese government had promised relocation within Okinawa. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took a particularly hard line on this issue. Since this bilateral problem coincided with the end of Japanese refueling missions to the Indian Ocean in support of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, fear was raised in the media of a rupture in Japan-US relations. When US President Obama spent four days in China and less than 24 hours in Japan on a recent trip, this was played up in the Japanese media as proof of "Japan-passing".

 As a result, the Hatoyama Administration began releasing comments all over the spectrum, from demands that US bases be removed from Japan completely to understanding of the need to maintain bases in Okinawa. Voters were not impressed with the almost daily contradictory assertions and subsequent denials from the PM. When he promised to make a decision on the whole issue by the end of 2009, and then as the deadline approached "decided" to decide by May, 2010, many said that the PM either had no backbone or no clue.

 A similar issue arose on the question of the proposed child allowance of 26,000 yen to parents for each child under middle school age. Should it be extended even to wealthy families? Should it be postponed until the economy recovered? Would it really help increase the birth rate? Questions were raised and the PM seemed to dither.

 On top of all this, Ichiro Ozawa, the Democratic Party president, is now caught up in a political funds/bribery scandal himself (the second such scandal for Ozawa). He refuses to step down and so far, the PM has backed him and urged him to fight the scandal. But, the Japan Times reported that 86% of voters in a recent survey want Ozawa to step down. Worse still, it has reminded voters of Hatoyama`s own woes. Maybe, some reason, Hatoyama backs Ozawa because if Ozawa were forced to resign, it would put pressure on Hatoyama, facing a similar scandal, to do the same.

 All in all, it has been a bad run for the PM of late, with, for the first time, disapproval outstripping approval ratings in most polls. There is one ray of sunshine for the PM as Upper House elections approach. It is the opposition.

 The LDP has been greatly reduced in stature and numbers by its recent landslide defeat. Some who have remained are threatening to leave the party and form a new grouping. Those who are pushing for an LDP revival have kept up the usual string of scandals and incompetent gaffes, just the latest being an LDP politician calling an opponent "not originally Japanese" since one of her parents was Taiwanese, even though the politician has Japanese citizenship. The comment led to calls in most media for politicians to stick to policy and get off the attacks and "innuendos". The offending LDP gaffe master was forced to apologize for his comments publicly, taking a little pressure off the PM. If only Harry Reid had been a leading Republican.....