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Professor Hatoyama holds forth in Japan

Reading Time: 7 mins

In Brief

Before entering politics — the family business — Hatoyama Yukio was a fledging academic, a Stanford-educated engineer. His background as an academic is often on display when he delivers set piece addresses. He has a penchant for abstraction, for drawing upon broad principles and shying away from the nitty gritty details of policy. This tendency is perhaps common to all leaders, but Hatoyama seems to take particular interest in how to frame policies intellectually (see his persistent use of his pet term yuai last year).

Remarkably, Hatoyama only used the term yuai once in his latest address, his policy speech for the new ordinary session of the Japanese Diet.


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But in this speech Hatoyama once again spent an inordinate time discussing the abstract principles behind his government’s policies, in this case the idea of ‘protecting life.’ It took nearly half the speech before the prime minister began discussing the specifics of his agenda.

And even then, the policies were discussed less in terms of specific items of legislation than in terms of goals to be achieved at some point in the future. Like his government’s growth strategy, it is unclear how the Hatoyama government plans to get from where Japan is today to where it wants Japan to be in ten years. Japan faces serious, immediate problems, most notably continuing deflation. (For a reminder of why deflation is destructive, Brad DeLong recently linked to an old paper of his explaining ‘why we should fear deflation.’) On this question of deflation, Hatoyama simply waved at his government’s budgets and said that his government is promoting ‘strong and comprehensive’ economic policies with the Bank of Japan. As the Economist reports, the truth behind the prime minister’s statement is more complicated. On this question of deflation, what for most governments would be at the top of the agenda, Hatoyama breezed through it with nary a detail.

As was clear during last year’s campaign, the DPJ under Hatoyama is much better on political and administrative reform than on the economy, promising reforms to the administrative and public-service corporations that have been a source for considerable waste through amakudari, writing the national strategy bureau into law, centralising the cabinet’s personnel management, and reorganising agencies and ministries (perhaps for real this time, unlike the Hashimoto-era reforms that simply created agglomerated superministries). While this section is also short on policy specifics, it is at least rooted in a clear-headed assessments of problems in national administration and a consistent set of proposals to fix them.

The same cannot be said for Hatoyama’s remarks on economic reform. Under the heading of ‘Turning crisis into opportunity — opening frontiers,’ Hatoyama renews his party’s call for an economy and economic growth that serves individuals, instead of enslaving them. What follows is the familiar refrain of green technology as a chance to transform the Japanese economy, coupled with embracing Japan’s links with other Asian economies, especially through the promotion of tourism (he speaks of ‘tourism policy’ without stating what that means in detail). Similarly, turning to economically stagnant provincial Japan, he calls for the modernisation of Japanese agriculture and the achievement of a fifty per cent rate of self-sufficiency in food production, although the only policy to which he refers is his government’s plan for direct income payments to farmers, which could prove beneficial for Japanese agriculture but not without other policies. Hatoyama is a little better when discussing decentralisation — he calls for the creation of an equal relationship between central and local governments and describes this year as year zero for the ‘regional sovereignty revolution,’ but once again, there are few specifics on how this will translate into legislation.

Compared to these sections on the government’s agenda at home, the foreign policy section of the speech provides a useful guide to the Hatoyama government’s thinking. This is in part due to the nature of foreign policy, which is more abstract and therefore involves fewer proposals in the form of legislation or regulation. A policy address can actually provide a useful guide to how a government approaches the world.

What does Hatoyama’s address tell us about his government’s worldview?

First, his government takes the US-Japan alliance seriously to the point of wanting to change it so that it is suitable for twenty-first century challenges. Tellingly, his section on the alliance discusses Futenma briefly — reiterating his promise that his government will have a plan by May, and that any plan has to square with the desires of the Okinawan people — but focuses mostly on transnational challenges, namely climate change, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism (briefly). He does not speak of deterrence or regional public goods. While it would be nice to get some statement on the security cooperation layer of what Hatoyama calls a multi-layered relationship, I understand what the Hatoyama government is trying to do. A US-Japan relationship that focuses on bilateral security cooperation to the exclusion of nearly everything else is inevitably an unequal relationship, a relationship in which the stronger US presses a weaker Japan to take on new roles and acquire new capabilities. A relationship in which the two countries discuss other issues, non-traditional security issues or development for example, is inevitably a more equal relationship.

Second, the Hatoyama government is determined to reorient Japan to Asia. For decades Japan has tried to square its Asia policy with the US-Japan alliance; henceforth Tokyo will have to figure out how the alliance fits in with its Asia policy. This change did not begin with Hatoyama, but it has definitely become more pronounced. What is clear in this speech and other statements by Hatoyama is that Japan is not ‘America passing’ when it comes to China. Just as Japanese concerns about the US government’s ‘Japan passing’ were (are?) overwrought, so too are American concerns about the Hatoyama government’s cosying up to China. Yes, the Hatoyama government wants a ‘strategic, reciprocal relationship’ with China (a phrase that originated with Abe, by the way), but it also wants better bilateral relationships with South Korea, Russia, India, Australia, and the countries of ASEAN. He wants Japan to have numerous bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral relationships in the region, and he wants his country engaged in tackling transnational problems within the region and around the world. While there are plenty of obstacles standing in the way of realising these foreign policy goals — not least the limits imposed on the government by the public’s desire to see domestic problems fixed — these remarks provide some indication to how Hatoyama’s government will act internationally.

With that in mind, this speech is still instructive even though it is short on policy details. Perhaps the most noteworthy lesson from this speech is what it says about the DPJ’s political base. In one section Hatoyama discusses the goal of ‘not allowing individuals to be isolated.’ To that end his government will protect employment, regulate the use of temporary workers, and enabling women, the young, and the old to participate fully in the economy and make use of their skills. Combined with its advocacy for stagnant regions, there are hints here that the DPJ over time could become the party of outsiders and laborers (whose interests clash to a certain extent). The natural rival for this party would be a Koizumian party, rooted in the middle and upper classes, prosperous urban and suburban districts, and supported by big business. Given that the Koizumians have been virtually driven from the LDP, it is difficult, for the moment, to see the LDP becoming this party. For now, economic insecurity means both parties are competing to speak for the marginalised, but should the economy recover a cleavage of this sort may be likely.

Finally, reading this speech calls to mind another recent prime minister from a prominent political family whose speeches were long on vision and ideas (and phrases in katakana) and short on policy details: Abe Shinzo. Obviously there are major differences between how Hatoyama and Abe see the world — Hatoyama is at least interested in the problems facing the Japanese people today — but like Abe, Hatoyama seems disinclined to dirty his hands with crafting a detailed policy agenda or the messy work of making policy proposals reality (i.e., politics). I cannot help but wonder whether a leader who appears so disinterested in the details of his policies and so unwilling to fight for them can be successful in power.

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