[Viewpoint] The making of a prime minister

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[Viewpoint] The making of a prime minister

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s announcement of his resignation last week was one of the greatest speeches in recent years. It is regrettable that such a moving oration marks the end of his term.

I wondered why he hadn’t done it earlier. He certainly made some mistakes. Some were small and others were more serious, but still it is a pity that Hatoyama, who accomplished the first change of regime and ended the Liberal Democratic Party’s 54-year rule in Japan, had to step down after only eight months.

The conservative Japanese media have been very harsh on both the LDP and Hatoyama’s Democratic Party. The “bullying” went too far, and it cannot have been easy for Hatoyama to endure, as he comes from a prominent political family. Hatoyama was naive and genuine, and his historical perspective was different from any political leader’s in the Liberal Democratic Party.

It was refreshing that he declared immediately after he resigned that he would not run for the next Diet election. He displayed a last-minute political capacity by stepping down along with Ichiro Ozawa, the secretary general of the Democratic Party, who had been criticized for alleged involvement in financial scandals. His decision instantly boosted the popularity of the Democratic Party. It was the end of the Hatoyama era.

Naoto Kan has been named the new captain of the ship, and it is essential to compare Kan with Hatoyama in order to predict the direction of the new prime minister. The two politicians certainly have similarities, but they are completely different.

I have met Hatoyama and Kan a number of times, both privately and officially. Personally, I found two similarities and four differences that define the former and incumbent Japanese prime ministers.

Let’s discuss their similarities first. Both Hatoyama and Kan have a fair perspective on history. In particular, they have unusual affection toward Korea.

However, when it comes to territorial disputes, they are hard-liners. I vividly remember Kan stubbornly arguing that the only thing he and the Liberal Democratic Party share is their position on territorial issues, specifically the Dokdo dispute. Moreover, both Kan and Hatoyama have engineering backgrounds, and do not back down in logical arguments.

Now, let’s get into the differences. If you likened Hatoyama to a pitcher whose specialty is curve balls, Kan throws straight. Hatoyama is the one who does not hurt or offend others and projects a genial, friendly image. When it comes to decisiveness, Kan is far superior. Yet, Kan is known for his quick temper. What will determine how long he can remain in the top post is how long and how well he can control his temperament.

The second difference is their wealth. In October 2009, Japanese politicians made their personal assets public. According to the report, Hatoyama’s assets amount to 1.44 billion yen (about $12 million). Kan’s assets were 9.05 million yen (less than $100,000). Kan has less than 1 percent of Hatoyama’s wealth. That means there would be little concern about him getting involved in the kind of financial scandals that embarrassed the previous government.

Third, Hatoyama is an idealist. He is an elite politician from a prominent family of political leaders and a former member of the Liberal Democratic Party. The issue of relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, which directly led to Hatoyama’s resignation, was an outcome of his idealistic views.

In contrast, Kan has never been a member of the LDP. Although he started his political career as a civil activist, Kan is a realist. His political philosophy is “the realization of a society where people are least miserable.” When I talked to him, I was reminded of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who said that his job was not to help the people of Britain go to heaven but to keep them from falling into hell. Kan is likely to have better chemistry with President Lee Myung-bak, who is known for his pragmatic, realistic view.

Creating a society with the least misery is a noble idea, but what the people of Japan, and the international community, more desperately hope for is a prime minister who remains in office for at least three years. We all hope that Naoto Kan will display continuous leadership at least until the next general election. The Japanese prime minister is not the class president at an elementary school.

We no longer want to hear an inauguration speech every year, as yet another politician introduces himself as the new prime minister of Japan. Depending on the House of Councillors election in July, the prime minister’s office might change hands once again at the Democratic Party election in September. If Kan is replaced then, he would last only three months. Let’s hope that Kan displays the last quality that would set him apart from Hatoyama - endurance.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Hyun-ki
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