Embattled Japanese Prime Minister Resigns

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose party swept away nearly half a century of rule by the sclerotic LDP, has tendered his resignation just eight months after his election. Like many of his predecessors, he became mired in funding scandals. He was slow to deliver on campaign promises, and he reversed himself on the key issue of U.S. forces on Okinawa, allowing them to stay on the island rather than insisting that they leave.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Brazil's President Lula Da Silva once joked: In Japan, you say good morning to one prime minister and good afternoon to another one. Well, that's an exaggeration, of course, but Japan has just lost its fourth prime minister in four years.

After a paltry eight months in office, Yukio Hatoyama has resigned. What went wrong? Well, NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

LOUISA LIM: Towards the very end, it seemed as if Yukio Hatoyama could do nothing right. His poll ratings were in steady freefall, from 72 percent public support last September to just 17 percent now.

He was even pilloried for his fashion sense, particularly a hideous, multicolored checkered shirt he wore to a barbecue. One Japanese critic sputtered: That shirt looks like it's from the '80s or '90s, and his ideas and philosophy are equally old.

Given the rising tide of discontent, Hatoyama's tearful departure came as no great surprise.

Former Prime Minister YUKIO HATOYAMA (Japan): (Through translator) I have decided to resign this post, and by doing so, we will have a new Democratic Party and we'll have a cleaner Democratic Party.

LIM: Just eight months ago, when Hatoyama came to office, he was seen as a trailblazer.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Prime Minister HATOYAMA: (Speaking foreign language).

(Soundbite of applause).

LIM: His Democratic Party had smashed the Liberal Democratic Party's half-century of almost-unbroken rule, and he promised a new kind of politics. But he, too, became mired in funding scandals, including revelations his own mother had been funneling $170,000 a month to his political fund. In the end, Jeff Kingston from Temple University in Tokyo says Hatoyama failed to deliver.

Mr. JEFF KINGSTON (Temple University): Clearly, the public has tired of him. They have really been disappointed by his lack of leadership skills. But he's been dogged by money scandals since he took office, and he broke his promise to the Okinawan people that he was going to move the Futenma Marine Air Base off the island.

LIM: On the streets of Japan, there is some dismay. There had been support for his efforts to reduce bureaucracy and pork-barrel projects, as well as tackling Japan's high level of public debt. But some were clearly expecting faster results.

Mr. NORIKO OSAMI(ph): (Speaking foreign language).

LIM: I think it's good he resigned, says Noriko Osami, because the economy is bad. I'm a business owner, and I'm still suffering.

Mr. CHIKAVA MORASI(ph): (Speaking foreign language).

LIM: I would say I'm disappointed, says Chikava Morasi. He didn't fulfill his promises, and in the end, he acted as if he hadn't made any promises. That made us lose our trust.

(Soundbite of political protest)

LIM: Indeed, angry protestors had greeted Hatoyama on Okinawa, and that was before his U-turn last week to embrace the agreement struck between the previous government and the U.S. in 2006. He explained his decision, saying that Japan had to maintain a trusting relationship with the U.S. at any cost, particularly given recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula. There was no choice, he said.

Hatoyama had vowed to build a more equal relationship with the U.S., but Jeff Kingston says the result has been a net loss.

Mr. KINGSTON: I think that he did complicate the relationship a great deal. In the end of the day, he accepted the original deal. So why did we go through an eight-month, drip-by-drip water torture that clearly tested alliance management skills on both sides of the Pacific? I don't think either side cover themselves in glory, but I think Hatoyama was particularly inept.

LIM: That agreement will be even harder to implement now, given the raised and dashed hopes. But the timing of Hatoyama's departure is strategic, ahead of important upper house elections in July. He took down with him his right-hand man, Ichiro Ozawa, a party heavyweight also known as the Shadow Shogun.

Analysts say their resignations will help the chances of the Democratic Party. The current finance minister, fiscal conservative Naoto Kan, is considered a frontrunner for the leadership.

The party is not wasting any time. It will choose its new leader on Friday.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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