Illustration: Phil Couzens

Hatoyama restates his government's mission

The 2009 extraordinary Diet session, the first under the leadership of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's cabinet, opened Monday with a speech by Hatoyama to a Diet populated by an overwhelming majority of parliamentarians from his Democratic Party of Japan. He declared Monday the first day of a "bloodless Heisei Restoration," a transformation without black ships and without war and occupation.

The substance of the speech was familiar enough. He opened by reiterating what I've previously described as the twin themes of the DPJ's campaign narrative: "regime change" (Hatoyama used the phrase "major cleanup" in this speech) and "livelihoods first." Discussing his government's plans for cleaning up the policymaking process and changing the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats, the prime minister showed once again that the DPJ's plans are clearest when it comes to reforming Japanese governance. From strengthening political leadership within ministries to dissolving the administrative vice ministers' council to creating new cabinet committees to stripping the DPJ of its policymaking bodies, the Hatoyama government is consciously erecting a new system of government. And in the name of conducting government with the public interest in mind, his government is changing how public money will be budgeted, shifting the focus of budgeting "from concrete to people" in Hatoyama's words.

But more than changing how public money is spent, Hatoyama stressed that in the name of "fraternity" his government would work to protect the most vulnerable members of Japanese society, a focus that has particular resonance after the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare's recent report on poverty in Japan found that the trend detected in a 2003 OECD report has continued (as of 2006), with 15.7 percent of the public's earning less than half the median income, placing Japan as fourth-worst in the OECD.

The speech was by and large a composite of Hatoyama's campaign speeches, his essay in VOICE, and his speech at the opening of the UN General Assembly in September. Drawing from the VOICE essay, he reiterated the importance of bolstering Japanese civil society and community, and, in words reminiscent of Ichiro Ozawa's speech at the DPJ convention in January, said that Japan needs an "economy for human beings." He repeated the DPJ's emphasis on the need for focus on values other than economic growth, that his government would, while promoting economic competition, would also work to support employment and foster skills, build a safety net, and pursue consumer-oriented goals like food safety. This kinder, gentler economy will be joined with greater activism by citizens in education and the provision of health and welfare in their communities.

On foreign policy, he once again stated his ambition for Japan to serve as a "bridge" internationally. He wants Japan to take the lead on climate change and energy issues, nuclear non-proliferation, and cooperation in Asia — and he wants to cooperate with the US on these global issues. He repeated the DPJ's desire for an "equal" relationship with the US, and stated that the equality of which he speaks refers to an equal partnership to combat the aforementioned global problems. In other words, an equal US-Japan relationship is one focused on issues other than the bilateral security issues that have crowded the bilateral agenda since the early 1990s, issues like the future of the US military presence in Okinawa. The Obama administration should appreciate that the Hatoyama government is no less eager to move on to other areas of cooperation, but that it wants the best deal possible for the people of Okinawa — and the prime minister, his cabinet, his party, and his coalition partners clearly do not believe that the current plan is the best possible deal.

If the content of Hatoyama's address adds little to what we already know about what Hatoyama and his government want to accomplish, I think the speech tells us much about the kind of prime minister Hatoyama is becoming. As I wrote in early September when Hatoyama was assembling his cabinet, it appears that Hatoyama is governing as first among equals in a cabinet of heavyweights, with the help of an inner cabinet of two or three close advisers. An Asahi article describes the Hatoyama cabinet as being characterized by cabinet ministers submitting policy proposals, often by floating trial balloons in the media, while the prime minister, with the help of Naoto Kan, the deputy prime minister and head of the national strategy office, Hirofumi Hirano, the chief cabinet secretary, and Yoshito Sengoku, head of the administrative reform council, decides which policies to approve. The government will face a test as it attempts to whittle down the gigantic first draft of the 2010 budget, but I think that it is unlikely that this basic pattern will change. Hatoyama has referred to himself as a "conductor-like" prime minister. His orchestra may at times be cacophonous — especially with Shizuka Kamei in the mix — but I see open debates among ministers regarding national policy better than the alternative of discussions among bureaucrats behind closed doors. That said, whether the Hatoyama system succeeds as a vehicle for implementing policies remains to be seen.

Meanwhile as the conductor Hatoyama will undoubtedly continue to give speeches that may be maddeningly vague as far as policy is concerned but will offer regular reminders of his government's mission to his subordinates in the cabinet, his party's backbenchers, and the public at large.

Slowly but surely a new system of government is taking shape in Japan.

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