02 June 2010

Dateline, Tokyo - THAT didn't last long

Japan's new coalition government, led by the Democratic Party of Japan ("DPJ"), is struggling, and before this summer's elections to the upper house of the Diet, Mr. Yukio Hatoyama has fallen on his sword, figuratively, and tendered his resignation. (Interestingly, he has also tendered the resignation of the DPJ's #2, Mr. Ichiro Ozawa, who was embroiled in a fundraising scandal.)

I felt that the DPJ's win was healthy for Japan as it provided a break from the decades-long rule of the Liberal Democratic Party ("LDP"). It was a chance for Japan to break out of the doldrums of its "lost decade" of recession, stagnation, deflation - c'mon, you remember it, stagflation - and also to move beyond the cronyism of LDP party leadership and the countryside's hold on domestic politics.

I still think those things, but the future for the DPJ led coalition looks grim? Why? Because the Prime Minister of Japan had made a campaign promise to move the U.S. Marine base out of Okinawa, and he found, once in office, that he couldn't do it. President Obama said that we were going to keep the base there, and the conversation ended. Public opinion, teetering anyway due to the scandals of Mr. Ozawa, turned, a coalition partner bolted, and Mr. Hatoyama had to do the honorable thing and resign.

American military requirements and priorities helped to cashier an elected Prime Minister of a close and long-standing ally.

There's more to it than that - the finance scandals didn't help, and many Japanese didn't want the base moved, and with its departure, a more equal relationship between Japan and the United States - but there is no question that his inability to get the deal done was the crux.

Probably, North Korea sinking a South Korean ship reawakened Japanese fears of living in an unstable neighborhood; and it certainly didn't help Mr. Hatoyama's efforts to wean the Japanese off American military support. Leftists were outraged by the backtrack, the Social Democrats walked out of his coalition, and those on the right never wanted the base to be moved in the first place. His coaltion's approval ratings went from 70% down to the high teens, and Mr. Hatoyama was left isolated and without support. He had no choice.

This is a win for South Korea, who hosts a large US contingent on its soil but will be reassured by the close proximity of the Futenma base to the Korean peninsula (other proposals included Guam, which would be an additional three hours away), and therefore this is a loss for North Korea. China also likely sees this as a loss, since Mr. Hatoyama had pledged to strengthen Japan's ties with its Asian neighbors (a/k/a "China").

Domestically, it remains to be seen if the DPJ can right itself and recover enough political goodwill to lead the nation through some difficult choices, including tax increases, decreases in spending, and currency negotiations with the Chinese.

The world's second largest economy, the United States' close ally, and Asia's most stable and developed democracy is going to have it's fourth Prime Minister in four years. And President Obama doesn't have to worry about domestic political fallout from losing a base lease in a sensitive region; we get to keep our base on Okinawa.

We are still an Imperial power even though the man wielding that power on our behalf isn't as mendacious as callow as the last one.


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