Three Keys to Understanding Japan’s New Diplomacy

Keiko Iizuka
Keiko Iizuka Washington Bureau Chief - The Yomiuri Shimbun

October 16, 2009

Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, made his diplomatic debut in late September with a trip to the United States, where he attended United Nations meetings in New York and the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh. Only a week after taking office, he met with U.S. President Barack Obama as well as other foreign leaders such as Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Hatoyama is the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which on August 30 won a landslide victory in the Lower House election over the long-time ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). As a result, an historic change of government took place on September 16, when the Diet elected Hatoyama Prime Minister. Hatoyama became the new Prime Minister of Japan. During the 2009 election campaign, the DPJ’s campaign manifesto either challenged or refuted outright many of the LDP’s policies.

Among the changes sought by the DPJ is a new approach to the Japan-U.S. relationship. In a statement made both before and after the election, Hatoyama has pledged to build “a close and equal relationship with the United States,” which implies that the new government will re-examine the current relationship with Washington. He has also proposed an idea to create a so-called “East Asian Community,” which positions East Asia as “Japan’s basic sphere of being,” an idea considered to indicate an increased emphasis on Japan’s relationship with China in comparison with the U.S.

Regarding this, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada reinforced this view in early October by openly expressing that the concept of the “EAC” would include such countries as China, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, and the ASEAN countries, but would exclude the U.S. Hatoyama himself said during his trip to Beijing in early October that “Japan, China and South Korea will form the core of the EAC concept.” He expressed this during the trilateral summit meeting with China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, noting also that “It could be said that Japan has so far depended on the U.S. too much.”

There are at least three keys to help understand the diplomacy that the Hatoyama government will conduct: 1) Hatoyama’s lofty yuai” philosophy, 2) the influence of Hatoyama’s colleague Ichiro Ozawa (the DPJ’s new Secretary General), and 3) the influence of the DPJ’s largest base of support, Rengo, or the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (JTUC).


Yuai Philosophy

Yuai (pronounced “you-I”) is Hatoyama’s political philosophy. It can be literally translated into English as “friendship and love,” but he prefers it to be translated as “fraternity.”

Hatoyama explains that this idea is “to stress the importance of the principle of ‘coexistence with others’ under which people respect each other’s mutual independence and differences while also working to understand each other and seek common ground for cooperative action.”

This represents a significant departure from the thinking of such LDP politicians as former Prime Ministers Taro Aso or Shinzo Abe. They put more emphasis on common values that are fostered within like-minded countries such as the U.S. As a consequence, Aso and Abe’s ideas were thought to undervalue, to an extent, such countries as China and Russia, former enemies of the West during the Cold War era.

On the other hand, “to respect each other’s mutual differences” clearly suggests that Hatoyama thinks that it is important to understand and engage China and Russia. To some extent, this anticipated change in tone in Japanese foreign policy mirrors the change that the Obama administration has instituted in Washington.

One characteristic of Hatoyama’s career is that he frequently has put forward extremely high ideals, only later to face obstacles when turning them into reality. In his more than 23 years as a Lower House politician, Hatoyama has done this repeatedly and only infrequently does he achieve the high ideals he sets forth. A typical example is his secession from the LDP in 1993 to form a new party; he helped topple the LDP once before but he and his colleagues lacked a vision for governing and his former party was soon back in power.

The most recent example of this Hatoyama style was his address at the UN Summit on Climate Change held on September 22. Hatoyama sought to take the initiative in the upcoming climate talks by setting an extremely tough reduction target for his own country, and he declared that Japan will cut emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2020. Japanese business circles, however, announced immediate irritation, as such an aggressive reduction target would likely hinder Japanese industry; the business community is also wary of the high possibility of the government introducing a new environmental tax, such as an anti-global warming tax.

Influence of Ichiro Ozawa

Ichiro Ozawa, a co-founder and former leader of the current DPJ, is the most influential and powerful figure within the ruling coalition at present. Ozawa is the central figure who led the DPJ to the landslide victory in the August 30 election, by forging meticulous campaign strategies and networks throughout the country. He is now expected to direct a massive campaign for the Upper House election in the summer of 2010 in order to complete the overwhelming majority of the DPJ in both houses of the Diet.

Even Prime Minister Hatoyama will have to consult Ozawa when he makes important decisions such as the appointment of ministers and senior leaders of the DPJ, or any other crucial political judgments – including those on Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) and the relationship with the United States and the United Nations.

Ozawa’s basic argument is that the SDF’s overseas deployment for international peace activities should be carried out based on UN resolutions, rather than on alliance-based agreements with the United States. His basic idea is “Japan has to have an equal relationship with the U.S. It should have its own voice.”

This approach is already causing some concern in Washington, and it will certainly cause stress in the Japan-U.S. relationship when in January the DPJ will terminate the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling activities in the Indian Ocean which support U.S. and coalition activities in Afghanistan. It will be worth watching to see what kinds of alternatives Hatoyama will come up with to fill the blank left by the end of refueling activities, and in what way Japan will continue to contribute to and support reconstruction activities in Afghanistan. In relation to this, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said early in October, “We believe that civilian support for the (Afghanistan) people’s livelihood, such as agricultural reconstruction, would lead to a fundamental solution to what constitutes the basis of terrorism,” and suggested that Japan might consider a mission in this area.

Influence of Rengo

Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, is the largest national trade union in Japan with approximately 6.8 million members. It is believed that Rengo contributed significantly to the DPJ’s victory, working together with Ozawa to mobilize its 47 local union branches as vote-getting machines for campaigns throughout the country.

Many people are aware that Rengo is the largest support base for the DPJ. But when it was revealed on September 16th that seven out of seventeen new cabinet ministers were Rengo affiliated members of the Diet, the majority of Japanese people finally realized that this was a real change of government – the LDP government had hardly any ties to the strong labor unions. The ties between the DPJ and labor were reinforced by the fact that the first guest to the Kantei (the Prime Minister’s Office) the day after Hatoyama took office was Rengo‘s President Tsuyoshi Takagi.

Rengo‘s policies are usually considered to be liberal and often tilted to the left. For example, it has actively participated in the “peace activities” held in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and campaigned for many years for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Rengo enthusiastically welcomed President Obama’s speech in Prague calling for “a world without nuclear weapons.”


As described above, the factors which affect Hatoyama’s diplomacy seem to be rather in favor of Asia, especially China, rather than the U.S. However, throughout his five day trip to the U.S. at the end of September, Hatoyama made every effort to forge close ties with President Obama, and he openly admitted that the most impressive event during the trip was his meeting with “Barack.”

In the August 30 election the DPJ won votes because, more than anything else, voters were fed up with the LDP. Yet in choosing change they did not necessarily choose Hatoyama’s yuai ideal, Ozawa’s backstage influence, and Rengo’s ideology. These keys to victory must now open to doors of complex domestic and external policy issues, and success is far from assured. The next critical juncture for gauging how these three keys will influence Japan’s foreign policy will come in mid-November, when President Obama visits Japan. Over the horizon is the Upper House election in July, when the voters will get another chance to shape Japan’s future.