Rethinking Hatoyama’s essay

Hatoyama Yukio’s essay in VOICE has officially become a problem for his government-in-waiting.

The latest sign of discord is a New York Times article documenting fears in Washington about the incoming Hatoyama government and the DPJ more generally. Indeed, the article reads like a catalog of the myths and exaggerations surrounding the DPJ in the US — and even identifies the main reason for Washington’s profound unease in the face of a new government: “While American officials and academics have spent decades cultivating close ties with the Liberal Democrats, who have governed Japan for most of the last half century, they have built few links to the opposition.”

The VOICE essay was, of course, cited as a source of greater uneasiness in the US government, which is trying to figure out what precisely the new government intends to do in regard to the US-Japan relationship.

But the DPJ’s ideas on the alliance — and foreign policy in general — are not actually all that hard to understand, despite Michael Green’s insistence in the article that “it was an indication they still haven’t figured out what they’re going to do in power.”

As I have argued before, I do not have much problem with the content of Hatoyama’s essay — outside of the bizarre Coudenhove-Kalergi references, the flighty rhetoric, and the use of the straw man of “American-led” globalization. But this article shows why the essay was a tactical mistake on the part of Hatoyama and his advisers. Many in the Japan policy establishment expect the worst from the DPJ, and Hatoyama’s essay will no doubt continue to be a critical point in the indictment, trotted out any time Hatoyama’s government strikes a chord that displeases Washington. While it is difficult to discern the precise chain of events, as far as I can tell (1) Hatoyama did not actually write the essay, and it is difficult to tell the extent to which he was involved; (2) Hatoyama’s office translated the essay in full and made it available for abridgment to the foreign media, i.e. his staff did not draft the abridgment; (3) Hatoyama’s office seemed unclear on how syndication works, and thus was surprised to see how the essay spread in the foreign media. I think it is also troubling that the relevant actor in this instance was Hatoyama’s personal staff, not the DPJ itself.

Ikeda Nobuo has been on top of this story and adds more details in this post. Ikeda says that according to a DPJ official VOICE received a request from the LA Times, VOICE then contacted Hatoyama’s office, which arranged for the translation, the LA Times then abridged the essay, which went into syndication and was eventually picked up by the Christian Science Monitor, the Huffington Post, and the International Herald Tribune, and through the IHT, it made its way to the New York Times website. Ikeda confirms that no one involved on the Japanese side was clear about the process of syndication. Ikeda draws the same conclusion as I do from this episode: the government needs a stronger PR system, which includes the government’s links with foreign media. The one bit of good news that I’ve heard on this front is that Hatoyama may be considering appointing Uesugi Takashi, a quite good freelance journalist who was once a secretary for Hatoyama Kunio and worked for the New York Times in Tokyo, as a secretary to the prime minister for media affairs. Uesugi has made a career of critiquing the media, and has evinced a sophisticated understanding of the workings of both the domestic and foreign media. Young and well-spoken, he would make an excellent public face for the Hatoyama government. Uesugi himself has said that he has heard nothing.

The point remains that the new government will need all the help it can get controlling its public image and using the media space to its advantage.

But enough about the Hatoyama government’s potential difficulties with the media. I’d like to turn my attention to the reaction to Hatoyama’s essay, which I think reveals more about what some people in Washington are predisposed to think about the DPJ than about how the DPJ will govern.

The reality is that Hatoyama’s essay, again, despite some of its rhetorical excesses, does not mark nearly as much of a departure from LDP rule as commentators and editorialists in the United States think it does.

Let’s step back just over a year to another statement on foreign policy by a Japanese leader, in this case the underappreciated Fukuda Yasuo. In May 2008, then-Prime Minister Fukuda delivered a speech on Japan’s place in the future of Asia at a conference hosted by Nikkei in Tokyo. It was, I remarked shortly after he delivered his speech, “stunning in the breadth of his vision, his clear assessment of the challenges and opportunities facing Japan today, and his recognition that Japan needs to make serious changes if it is to retain power and influence in Asia.” Like Hatoyama, Fukuda referenced a relatively obscure European thinker (Fernand Braudel) to make his point about turning the Pacific Ocean into an “inland sea.” Like Hatoyama Fukuda barely touched upon the alliance with the US, but what he did say was important: Fukuda outlined the idea of the alliance as a crucial actor for stability in the region, but the stress on the alliance’s role in providing stability was a remarkable departure from his predecessor, who along with the Bush administration stressed shared values and cooperation among democracies. Like Hatoyama, Fukuda spoke at much greater length about the importance of cooperation in Asia in part as a means to resolve Japan’s domestic difficulties. (Hatoyama’s discussion of a regional community was premised on the idea of regional cooperation as a means to cope with the consequences of globalization.) I grant that there is a vast difference in tone between Hatoyama and Fukuda: despite his insistence that his essay was about fraternity, Hatoyama’s essay is more negative and defensive. Fukuda’s vision was more open and generous. Hatoyama could have published something in the same vein, but perhaps the difference can be chalked up to events that have transpired since Fukuda gave his speech.

This vision of Japan’s foreign policy could be called that of a “middle power,” in that, as Hatoyama noted in his essay, Japan faces a serious challenge in the new Asia: “How can Japan, caught between an America struggling to remain a hegemon and a China wanting to be and planning to be a hegemon, maintain its political and economic autonomy and defend its national interests? The international environment is which Japan will be placed from now on is not straightforward.” As I noted in my initial (critical) response to the Japanese edition of Hatoyama’s essay, this was perhaps the most accurate point in the essay: Hatoyama puts his finger precisely on the problem facing Japan, regardless of which party is in power. His response to it may be a bit woolly, but it stems from the obvious realization that Japan’s leaders, like the other middle powers in the region (Australia, South Korea, the ASEAN countries, etc.), do not want to have to choose between the region’s two giants, because Japan benefits from its relationships with both. The challenge is to find the right equilibrium in its relations between the two — Samuels’s “Goldilocks consensus,” in other words. Finding the equilibrium will entail constant effort on the part of the region’s governments, and, as the countries of ASEAN have learned, multilateral cooperation amongst themselves and with the region’s other powers is a useful means for calibrating the relationships. It is for precisely this reason that I don’t take Hatoyama’s ideas about an Asian community especially seriously because it does not strike me as a welcome substitute for ASEAN-centered regional cooperation.

In this approach, Hatoyama no doubt speaks for many in his party, an overwhelming number of whom approve of a shift to Asia as found in a Mainichi survey mentioned here. The DPJ does desire a new alliance that is part of Japan’s Asia policy — the “US in Asia,” not a choice between the US or Asia. Again, there are strong similarities with Fukuda’s approach in this way of thinking. And why shouldn’t the alliance change? During the fifty years since the revision of the US-Japan security treaty, the alliance has been as much a domestic institution propping up LDP rule as any other, with the US acting a silent (and at times not-so-silent) participant in Japan’s domestic politics and policymaking. Is that normal? Why shouldn’t the DPJ want a more equal relationship with the US? Naturally the relationship looks fine from the US perspective (although, of course, Japan could always stand to do more).

Despite the impression of Japanese free-riding, Japan asks for little from the US, even as US officials have asked for more defense spending, looser restrictions on Japanese security policy, and, during the depths of Japan’s prolonged economic crisis, offered unsolicited advice on how Japan can save itself by simply following the US model. (On this last point, it is easier to understand the schadenfreude of Japanese politicians after the Lehman shock.) Yes, Japan has benefited greatly from the alliance, but the US has not provided security for Japan as a matter of charity.

It is completely beyond me why some Americans think that the DPJ should change whatever institutional legacies of LDP rule it wants so long as it does not touch the alliance. Why should the alliance be exempt? Why shouldn’t Japan’s government stress the need for a relationship that dovetails with Japan’s Asia policy, respects Japan’s constitutional and legal limits, and includes more than simply a security dimension, if that’s what the Japanese public prefers? It is worth stressing that the DPJ is opposed not to the US, but to the traditional security-centered alliance. The inclusion of the call for an FTA in the section on the US-Japan relationship was an important symbol in this regard, and stands in stark contrast to the LDP’s policy of being willing to talk about security while scaring the Japanese people with talk of the threat posed by trade with the US. Talking economics is the perfect way to create a more equal relationship: a security-centered relationship is bound to be forever asymmetrical, because Japan can never hope to equal the military power of the US.

A Japan that can and will occasionally say no to the US is a good thing, despite the New York Times‘s “concern” that Japan will bring its refueling ships home when the enabling law expires in January. Contrary to the Times’s argument, the refueling ships have long since served their purpose: their purpose was not to help the US, their purpose was to expunge Japan’s guilt over its diplomatic failure in 1991 in response to the Gulf War. Their purpose was served once Koizumi acted quickly to send them in the first place, showing that Japan is capable of reacting to a security crisis. Even in 2008, when they temporarily returned to Japan, it was clear that coalition activities in Afghanistan could survive without Japan’s symbolic contribution. The Obama administration has already suggested that Japan can help in other, non-military ways.

The DPJ will challenge the Obama administration, at least on the realignment of US forces in Japan. The State Department may have already ruled out the possibility of renegotiating the deal on Futenma, but I don’t think the State Department will have the final word on the matter. The DPJ finds the current deal unacceptable — on this issue there is little disagreement among the party’s former LDP politicians, ex-socialists and civic activists.” (See here for my take on this frequently repeated canard.) At some point, the US will have to acknowledge, without panic or alarm, that a new party is in control of Japan, that it does not want to scrap the alliance (nor could it even if it wanted to), and that make the alliance more equal, more transparent, and more acceptable domestically will be beneficial for the alliance in the long run.

The DPJ is here and they are more ready to govern than many in Washington seem ready to acknowledge. As Takashi Yokota of Newsweek argues, “they should relax.”

6 thoughts on “Rethinking Hatoyama’s essay

  1. Anonymous

    Washington should realize the consequences of a failed DPJ administration. If Japan cannot evolve to a true two-party democracy, as has occurred in Korea and Taiwan, then what are the alternatives?As for an equal relationship in security, should the inbalance in trade be ignored? Equality in the US-Japan relationship involves not only security, but economics…the sword cuts both ways.


  2. I thought Hatoyama's essay was somewhat idiotic when I first read it. But it was a translated piece that did not include the proper context, like his concept of 友愛 (fraternity) — which even people in Japan are perplexed. I almost think the broo-haha over the so-called anti-Americanism of Hatoyama (DPJ) might be a good thing, as it may establish just a little bit more Japan presence within the citizens of the U.S.


  3. I agree that this essay is being blown out of proportion. It's not like Aso Taro could say the words \”financial crisis\” without prefacing them with アメリカ発の every time he opened his mouth, but I don't remember him ever getting painted as an anti-American-style-capitalism socialist firebrand.


  4. Brad

    Spot on Tobias. I agree with you on just about everything. BTW, has anyone noticed the way stories about Hatoyama's wife have hit all the major news sites in the US? They've painted an exaggerated, sensational picture of her (eccentric as she is) that lacks an understanding of the geinoukai context from whence she came.I can't help but think someone, somewhere has a vested interest in sliming them right now. Am I being paranoid?


  5. Update: followed my post and revised a few details. It wasn't the agent of LAT but Global Viewpoint (subsidiary of Tribune) who contacted VOICE. He insists that he told VOICE that the article would be distributed to 100 papers around the world, but VOICE and Hatoyama's secretary don't remember it.GV admitted that they abridged the article without permission. It was their fault. If they had showed the abridged version to Hatoyama's secretary in advance, Hatoyama coudn't claim \”I didn't contribute\”.However, it isn't fair to say that Hatoyama knew nothing. As Hatoyama's secretary knew that the article would be published in the foreign media, he should have confirm the detail. And, to my surprise, a DPJ official admitted that the original article was written by the secretary and Hatoyama only checked it.


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