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Japan's Hatoyama resigns, dogged by Okinawa base dispute

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said Wednesday he would resign after coming under fire for weak leadership and reneging on a promise to move a US military base off Okinawa island.

TV sets show a news broadcast about Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's decision to step down, at an electric shop at Tokyo's Shimbashi district Wednesday. Embattled Hatoyama resigned Wednesday to improve his party's chances in an election next month, after his own popularity plunged over his broken campaign promise to move a US Marine base.

Itsuo Inouye/AP

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Japan plunged again into political upheaval Wednesday after the Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, said he would resign amid fierce public criticism over his handling of a US military base relocation, just eight months after his party won a landslide election victory.

In another blow to the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Mr. Hatoyama said his powerful general-secretary, Ichiro Ozawa, would also quit in an attempt to “clean up” the party’s image.

Mr. Ozawa, widely seen as the main power broker in the government, has been embroiled in a political funding scandal since last spring. Hatoyama, meanwhile, has faced questions over revelations that he received $170,000 a month from his mother to support his political activities.

“Since last year’s elections, I tried to change politics so that the people of Japan would be the main characters,” Hatoyama said in a televised address to party members.

But he conceded that he had failed to convince voters that he was capable of implementing the sweeping policy changes he promised last year, crucially his determination to end decades of subservience to US foreign policy.

“That was mainly because if my failings,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. “The public has refused to hear me.”

That failure became impossible to ignore last week when he reneged on a pledge to move the Futenma marine base off the southern island of Okinawa to another part of Japan.

Under pressure from Washington, he was forced to accept a 2006 agreement to relocate the base from its urban location to a remote site on the island’s north coast – a move that infuriated local politicians and residents.

Successor faces tough agenda

As Hatoyama delivered his mea culpa, speculation mounted over who would succeed him. Reports said the DPJ would choose a new leader on Friday and name a new cabinet next Monday.

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Hatoyama’s replacement will have to address deepening economic problems, mend fences with the US over the base dispute, and bring stability to politics after four years of turmoil and indecision. Hatoyama is Japan’s fourth prime minister in as many years.

The front-runner is Naoto Kan, a combative former health minister who took on bureaucrats over an HIV-tainted blood scandal in the mid-1990s, while representing a minor party in a Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition.

Mr. Kan, who could face a challenge from the transport minister, Seiji Maehara, is regarded as an independent thinker. “His position is more forceful and clearer than his rivals, and he may be able to move things in a different direction,” says Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

At the very least, Kan is expected to launch a debate on a hitherto taboo policy option: raising the consumption (sales) tax from its current 5 percent to pay for rising welfare costs.

The DPJ is hoping that a quick handover will give it time to shore up support ahead of upper house elections in July. Although it has a comfortable majority in the lower house, expected losses next month will force it to approach smaller parties so it can retain control of both chambers and pass key legislation.

Hatoyama's resignation came as the government was preparing to announce a midterm plan to rein in Japan's huge public debt – now approaching 200 percent of GDP – and encourage economic growth.

Mr. Nakano says that Kan, a fiscal conservative who was not directly involved in the Futenma decision, offers the best hope of making a clean break with the past, and may even manage to coax the DPJ’s former coalition partner, the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SDP), back into the fold.

US base controversy persists

But, he adds, “difficulties over the base issue will continue because of strong local opposition. The US didn’t want to lose face over Futenma, but it may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Futenma is not going to go away.”

Japan’s three-party coalition began to unravel over the weekend when the SDP withdrew in opposition to the relocation plan.

Tobias Harris, a US-based Japan politics specialist, says the US had “got its wish” with Hatoyama’s resignation.

The next prime minister, he wrote on his blog, Observing Japan, “will have to work immediately on fixing the DPJ's standing with the public, starting with yet another attempt to fix Futenma in a way that satisfies Okinawans and the general public.

“The US, meanwhile, would be wise to give the new prime minister plenty of space this time around.”

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