Van Wolferen: 1/2 Year of Hatoyama > 1 Year of Obama

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obama hatoyama white house.jpgJapan’s Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, is having a tough time. The popularity of his cabinet has fallen to the high 30s/low 40s from previously unsustainable, stratospheric heights — but structural change has costs, and I remain optimistic that Democracy 2.0 is taking over in Japan.
I think that we are seeing serious rewiring of Japan’s political system which is essential if Japan’s bureaucrat-dominated state is going to become more sensitive not only to voter preferences but also to new realities in the international system.
One rarely sees positive stuff in the American press about Hatoyama — particularly as he has been tearing off the left hand, middle fingernail of the American Leviathan with an effort to stop an expensive and controversial US Marine air station from moving from one part of Okinawa island to another. Overall, Hatoyama’s resistance about the Futenma Base shouldn’t be more than a small blip in the overall US-Japan strategic and economic relationship, but it’s that middle finger nail — and Japan’s boldness has been ticking off a number of US policymakers.
Another group that is ticked off as their fingernails are pulled back, one by one, are Japan’s bureaucrats.
Today, in a terrific piece by the New York TimesMartin Fackler, Hatoyama is portrayed as a potentially historically successful and significant leader.
Fackler writes:

Since ending the Liberal Democrats’ nearly unbroken 54-year grip on power in last summer’s election, Mr. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party has proclaimed its top mission to be changing the way the country is governed by a process that is commonly called “escaping the bureaucracy.” The aim is to make Japan’s political system more responsive by ending more than a century of de facto rule by elite career bureaucrats at Tokyo’s central ministries, and empowering democratically elected politicians instead.
It has already made considerable progress, say political experts, who caution that the battle is far from won. The Hatoyama administration has put teams of lawmakers in charge of daily operations at the ministries, which long ran Japan with backroom decision-making. It has centralized the appointment and promotion of top officials in the prime minister’s office, and forced out recalcitrant top officials.
To put its imprint on spending decisions, the government will hold a second high-profile search for hidden waste in ministry budgets next month. The first one, last autumn, which cut some $7 billion in spending, offered an unprecedented public spectacle of Parliament members grilling squirming bureaucrats, turning the tables on the powerful pooh-bahs who had long called the shots.
“The bureaucrats created a very centralized system that has become out of date, and unable to react to the world’s changes,” Kazuhiro Haraguchi, the minister of internal affairs, said in an interview. “We need a system that serves the people, not the bureaucracy and entrenched interest groups.”

I agree that the jury is still out — but those doubting Hatoyama need to tread carefully because this seems to be a leader and party that clearly recognizes that inertia and incrementalism as policy drivers would be a disaster for Japan. They see this as a time of historical discontinuity — and Japan really needs to change — rather than just faking it as it did in the past.
Particularly powerful in this article was Japan expert Karel van Wolferen‘s assessment:

“What is happening is nothing short of revolutionary,” said Karel van Wolferen, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Amsterdam who wrote a 1995 best-selling critique of the Japanese system, “The System That Makes Japanese Unhappy,” which zeroed in on the unresponsive elite as a core national problem. A half year of Hatoyama has produced more change than an entire year of Obama.”

To be fair to President Obama who also has had an up and down year, securing comprehensive health care reform — even if not satisfactory to a big slug of Americans — is a huge accomplishment, putting him in the top tier of all presidents who have tried the same over the last century.
But I understand van Wolferen’s essential point: Hatoyama — with his own shadow shogun Ichiro Ozawa — is reconfiguring the architecture of the Japanese political order.
— Steve Clemons
Ed. Note: Hat tip to TWN’s favorite newshound Daniel Lippman.

Comments

18 comments on “Van Wolferen: 1/2 Year of Hatoyama > 1 Year of Obama

  1. Thomas L Sjovall says:

    The new PM. of Japan is doing wonderfull work.
    The is great for Japan affter more then 50 years.
    GOOD for JAPAN and it’s people!
    Keep up the good work!

    Reply

  2. justin says:

    the biggest change to come from Tokyo has been, however informal, the attempt by Hatoyama’s cabinet to bypass the powerful press. The article below was also written by Mr. Fackler.
    (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/21/world/asia/21japan.html)
    As in America, a press corp that feels jilted can be a formidable enemy. While I thought that Okada would have made a better PM, Hatoyama has certainly shown more spine than any PM since Kiozumi. I don’t agree with all of his positions, but at least he has positions.
    The elephant in the room is Ozawa. At best, he represents stasis. At worst, his backroom political style will derail the DPJ just when the country needs it most.
    His party may closely compare with the current Democratic leadership in the US: juggling the interests of reformers, party members jittery over elections, blue dogs, and corporatist cronies. Reid and Pelosi pulled it out. Perhaps Hatoyama can whip the party behind him.
    And lastly, I agree with the following:
    “Overall, Hatoyama’s resistance about the Futenma Base shouldn’t be more than a small blip in the overall US-Japan strategic and economic relationship…”
    But only because I think the US will change course. It is high time we start treating Japan in a way that reflects their status as our best ally in the region.

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  3. The Pessimist says:

    Steve,
    One point in your analysis that I simply will not ignore: Japanese citizens on Okinawa are beyond fed up with decades of drunken American soldiers raping, assaulting, and killing their fellow citizens with seemingly complete immunity from any legal consequences. They are also fed up with US military operations that pollute their air, water and food production. They are fed up with being treated as secondary citizens in their own communities on their own territory. They are fed up with having to pay the financial costs of increased taxation required for hosting an uninvited guest that treats the natives with utter contempt and disrespect.
    You framing of this long standing corrosive conduct: “Overall, Hatoyama’s resistance about the Futenma Base shouldn’t be more than a small blip in the overall US-Japan strategic and economic relationship…”
    “A small blip!” Come on Steve, this is about as despicable (or is it inadvertently dismissive?) a statement regarding basic human rights as I have seen you present on this blog. Do you actually dismiss the legitimate opposition from Okinawa residents to American military occupation as simplistically as “resistance?”
    Regards

    Reply

  4. Don Bacon says:

    Dirk,
    I agree with you — Obama has turned out exactly as expected.

    Reply

  5. Dirk says:

    Wow, you even slow down and explain it to him real slow and Don just blows it off. Clearly it IS a structural difference…Pelosi’s and Reid’s jobs are some of the most difficult in politics, which in a parliamentary system would simply NOT be the case.
    The reason that Obama took a hands off approach to HCR is because of the perceived failure of the approach used by Clinton. In other words, if they write it themselves how can they avoid passing it. Unfortunately the needed approach was somewhere in between, with guidance and encouragement needed along the way.
    Personal qualities do matter and Obama adapted, late but in the nick of time. Our host’s is certainly not infallible in my view. Now that the bill has passed you are already seeing people twist themselves in knots saying Obama is one of the greatest presidents ever that previously were ready to write him off.
    I have always seen Obama as a moderately conservative Democrat and while his speeches are inspiring, I’ve avoided them and always looked at the transcripts. He has turned out exactly as expected and even pleasantly surprised me in several areas.
    I think the starry eyed that seem to feel they were sold a bill of goods need to take a good look at themselves.

    Reply

  6. Don Bacon says:

    Publius,
    The point of this diary is to focus on personal qualities of national leaders, not to excuse weakness by invoking differences in political structure. The evidence is clear as presented. The personal dynamics of the two leaders have been described. One is a doer; the other a talker. We both agree that the first has achieved results beyond those of the second, we disagree on the reasons. But the evidence is clear — one is a doer and the other merely a talker.
    It’s not a structural difference as much as a personal difference. Steve caught it — you should too. Personal qualities matter; everybody knows that.

    Reply

  7. Publius says:

    Don:
    Obviously, you feel strongly about this, but you are wrong—political structure does impact political output.
    -1- Presidential systems, in the U.S. and everywhere, rest on a separation of legislative and executive powers. Each branch has a separate mandate from the people, and each branch has separate powers. We all learned about checks and balances in third grade civics class for a reason. Each branch can check, slow down, and block the other. This is the whole point—passing legislation is slow, hard, and tedious by design; presidential systems are designed to force compromise.
    Parliamentary systems, by contrast, rest on a fusion of legislative and executive powers. There is one mandate from the people and one set of powers. The executive is composed of the legislature’s leaders, so they are pulling oars in the same direction, rather than checking one another. “In the parliamentary system, there is fusion of powers between the executive and the legislative branches. This union serves to facilitate the exercise and coordination of governmental powers and functions to formulate desired policies and implement programs of government.” (http://dirp3.pids.gov.ph/ris/eid/pidseid0602.pdf)
    The U.S. president has far more power and influence than you or I, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it is always easier to act in a parliamentary than a presidential system.
    -2- Groups like the Blue Dogs don’t/can’t happen in parliamentary systems, which always have stronger, disciplined political parties than presidential systems. Legislators in a parliamentary system may occasionally buck their party, but never in a consistent and organized fashion as is common in the U.S. “The fusion of the legislative and executive branches in the parliamentary system tends to lead to more discipline among political party members. Party members in parliaments almost always vote strictly along party lines. Presidential systems, on the contrary, are less disciplined and legislators are free to vote their conscious with fewer repercussions from their party. (http://forums.canadiancontent.net/international-politics/37911-parliamentary-versus-
    presidential-governments.html)
    -3- While Hatoyama’s DPJ does not have an absolute majority in the upper house, it does have a 109-83 seat lead over the LDP and a functioning majority in combination with minor parties. More to the point, in Japan as in all parliamentary systems, the vast majority of the power is vested in the lower house (they are hardly co-equal, as with our House and Senate), and there the DPJ has a massive 308-119 lead over the LDP. When you have a roughly 2.5 to 1 advantage in seats and strict party discipline (point #2 above), passing legislation is pretty darn easy—whether a leader is made of sterner stuff or not.
    -4- Finally, as for your last comment: “Therefore: “1/2 Year of Hatoyama > 1 Year of Obama”
    Isn’t that something we can all agree on?,” no one here ever disagreed with the point. My original point, and those of others who joined in, wasn’t that Obama has produced more output than Hatoyama, but rather simply discussed an important aspect of WHY Hatoyama has been more productive—that, with legislative and executive branches fused together, and with a huge majority, and with strict party line voting, Hatoyama has a significant structural advantage over Obama.

    Reply

  8. Sweetness says:

    Don, I guess, the point doesn’t really interest me. To wit: does .5 Hatoyama = 1.0 Obama? I don’t know. And what does it matter? The situations and countries are so completely different as are, I imagine, the men, their allies, their opponents, their cultures, and their political systems.
    I’m not interested in making excuses for Obama, but I do think differences between the two situations should be noted, if only for historical accuracy.
    I don’t really see why leaving it to Congress to do their job–bill writing–is such a sin. Had he taken the opposite route, he might have been accused of forcing his view on Congress, or some such. Personally, I think it was ALWAYS clear what he was looking for in a bill in terms of the five or so principles he laid out and pretty much stuck to through the campaign and into his presidency…with some changes, of course.
    As far as HCR’s popularity, we have this as a contrast: “Japan’s Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, is having a tough time. The popularity of his cabinet has fallen to the high 30s/low 40s from previously unsustainable, stratospheric heights — but structural change has costs, and I remain optimistic that Democracy 2.0 is taking over in Japan.”
    If this is a sign that Hatoyama is going for tough change, then I think HCR’s low approval ratings (thus far) are signs of the same.
    No way that an effort that had been stopped for over 100 years was going to sail through smoothly or not engender a lot of opposition. Personally, I like this line from the diary entry:
    “To be fair to President Obama who also has had an up and down year, securing comprehensive health care reform — even if not satisfactory to a big slug of Americans — is a huge accomplishment, putting him in the top tier of all presidents who have tried the same over the last century.”
    Perhaps if Hatoyama had used a hands-off approach and had achieved such a major, seemingly impossible result, coming back from the dead several times (how miraculous!), evading a thousand arrows shot from all directions like Jet Li, we’d be marveling at the subtle, almost invisible to the eye (the Western eye, that is) maneuverings of the Asian politician who never loses his cool yet comes out on top (how like the martial artist in his use of small movements to create big effects) as opposed to the crude bluster of American pols.
    The copy writes itself…
    Let’s reconvene in a year and see where things have gotten to…
    I think it’s mostly in retrospect that popular programs like Medicare, Medicaid and SS gain close to universal acceptance and accolades.

    Reply

  9. Don Bacon says:

    Sweetness,
    The point of this diary, featuring an article by Martin Fackler, is how a politician can work and struggle against the system, as Hatoyama has apparently done in Japan, in comparison to Obama’s mostly hands-off approach in the US. It’s highly instructional (or should be).
    “Mr. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party has proclaimed its top mission to be changing the way the country is governed . . .The aim is to make Japan’s political system more responsive . . The Hatoyama administration has put teams of lawmakers in charge of daily operations at the ministries. . .To put its imprint on spending decisions, the government will hold a second high-profile search for hidden waste in ministry budgets next month.. .” etc.
    Mr. Obama obviously has not put forth a comparable effort. On his one “achievement”, HCR, after a year in which he left the entire bill-writing up to congressional committees, Pelosi (mainly) got a bill passed that is disapproved by fifty percent of the electorate (41% in favor). The US financial situation continues to sink, along with progress on “necessary” wars, and I/P continues to sicken.
    Therefore: ” 1/2 Year of Hatoyama > 1 Year of Obama”
    Isn’t that something we can all agree on?

    Reply

  10. Sweetness says:

    Don, it’s not a question of what he knew or what he let on he knew. It’s a question of the realities he faces. No one’s going to run for office by noting all the obstacles that will prevent him from achieving his agenda (at least not now in America). “Change…but only if I can get those BDs to go along with me.” No, of course not. Hatoyama MAY be made of sterner stuff; I don’t know.
    But, Obama did get HC through, something that NO ONE from TR to the present has even come close to doing. Whether he would have gotten a better bill had he been more hands-on, we’ll never know. Had he gone for single payer, he might have lost even more votes. Hard to know.
    What we do know is that by almost any criterion, he did something amazing by passing HCR. You’re welcome to tut-tut about it all you want. But frankly, the progressive wing of the party can’t even get itself arrested when it attempts to put forward policies that people here often claim “the American people” want in overwhelming numbers.
    That said, if he had gone for Medicare For All, he MIGHT have done better, if only because everyone would have known (pretty much) what he was talking about, and there’s a broad reservoir of goodwill toward the program. Or, the opposite might have happened–we just don’t know.

    Reply

  11. Don Bacon says:

    Sweetness,
    Are we to assume that Obama didn’t know about Blue Dogs when he inspired millions of new acolytes with his Change(TM) agenda? The facts are that Obama has (1) continued most Bush policies (esp. finance and war) with the same people and (2) taken a general hands-off approach to the changes he promised, as on HCR. Hatoyama seems to be made of sterner stuff.

    Reply

  12. PrahaPartizan says:

    Steve, thank you for your update on how Hatoyama is trying to restructure the Japanese government. However, just how different is the Japanese system any different from any other purely parliamentary system with a head of state effectively isolated from the governing process?
    Have you ever seen the BBC series “Yes, Minister?” In one of the episodes the Permanent Under Secretary to one of the Ministers of the government provides a detailed description of just how that system works (at least in Britain) and it doesn’t lean toward the political Ministers. I suspect that the Japanese government has functioned more like a real parliamentary system is intended to act than any of us might like to admit. What might set the Japanese system apart is its obeisance to the folks in Finance, but even there the British Exchequer is often considered the second-in-command in the British government.

    Reply

  13. Sweetness says:

    Don, the Ds are all “Ds” in name only. The blue dawgs are almost a
    completely different animal from the progressives. So the Ds get
    all the process advantages of being in the majority–control of
    committees–but that doesn’t mean they have a functional majority
    that they can call on without a lot of horse-trading. Witness the
    Lincolns and Nelsons who voted against the HC bill and who forced
    a lot of the most egregious back room deals in exchange for their
    votes.

    Reply

  14. Don Bacon says:

    cookies,
    Obama has been stopped in his promises for Change(TM) by the petty accusations that are made against him? In the US legislature the Democratic Party controls both houses, in Japan they are a majority only in the lower chamber, so Obama has the advantage.
    Both Hatoyama and Bush managed to do more with less.

    Reply

  15. cookies_and_milk says:

    Hatoyama also has the benefit of nobody accusing him
    of being a traitor who’s not really japanese, not
    loyal to japan, and is secretly plotting the
    destruction of japan. No, these are not fringe
    ideas. The republican party supports these ideas and
    winks at them.
    This says a lot about the kind of country the US is,
    and that’s a whole different topic, but for fuck’s
    sake people need to try some balance before
    reflexively attacking Obama.

    Reply

  16. cookies_and_milk says:

    What bullshit.
    Hatoyama doesn’t have to deal with the tea party
    (and its left wing equivalent) and an opposition
    party that has gone nuts, nor does he have the same
    commitments and responsibilities and challenges the
    US has in foreign policy.
    The left only seems to have a spine when attacking
    Obama, maybe if you have the same guts when fighting
    republicans you wouldn’t get run over so easily all
    the time.

    Reply

  17. Don Bacon says:

    Of course action is slow and difficult when the new president retains the old players and the old policies in important areas (finance and military), reneges on many of his campaign promises for no good reason and generally supports the malevolent corporatist, Zionist-supporting policies that are bringing the country down.
    And Obama is not a victim of a cumbersome structure. The US president has a great capacity for action — look at what the last one managed to do.

    Reply

  18. Publius says:

    The point about what is happening in Japan is certainly true, but on the comparison of Hatoyama’s and Obama’s output–
    If Obama were A) working in a parliamentary system, with its fusion of executive and legislative powers and its strong party discipline, and B) had the kind of massive majority that Hatoyama’s DPJ has over the LDP, I’m pretty sure his output would be a lot higher too. Parliamentary/unitary systems like that in Japan are designed to provide quick action by election winners, while presidential/federal systems like ours are meant to make action slow and difficult. Structure matters.

    Reply

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