Yukio Hatoyama and His Vision for Japan

For the first time since he became Japan's prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama will address the international community this week, with an ambitious statement at the United Nations in which he is expected to promise that Japan will take the lead in the effort to build a world free of nuclear weapons. But in many ways, Hatoyama's speech will be far more than that: it will represent the formal introduction of a man whose lofty, sometimes esoteric rhetoric has given him an early reputation as something of a mystery man.

Yet Hatoyama should be almost instantly recognizable as the latest of many leaders who are seeking to define a new place for nations caught between the rise of China and the ebb of America, between the prosperity of free-market capitalism and the comforts of the welfare state. In some ways, Hatoyama is quite possibly Asia's first "Third Way" leader, a man in the mold of a Bill Clinton or Tony Blair—a flexible visionary produced by a crisis of the old order. On the economic front, he aims to temper the recent eruptions of capitalism's animal spirits without destroying them. His calls to curb the "excesses" of U.S.-led global markets have been read as signs of anti-Americanism in Japan. But his comments are no less pointed or impassioned than the critiques of America's role as the incubator of the great credit crisis emanating from its other staunch allies, including Germany, France, and Britain, as well as from China. His call to restore morals and moderation to the market by tending to issues like the environment, education, social welfare, health care, and income inequality would ring familiar in London, Berlin, or Beijing. His solutions to Japan's economic stagnation are decidedly centrist: he wants to direct government money away from bureaucrats and special interests and toward households. He hopes to narrow the income divide and spur domestic demand by funneling money away from wasteful spending projects and toward programs like expanding child subsidies and eliminating highway tolls. And he plans to pursue free-trade agreements with the U.S. and other Asian nations, as he promised to during the campaign.

On foreign affairs, Hatoyama has also staked out a middle ground, with a policy that acknowledges that there are other bigger players in the region. He sees that his own nation, as an Asian capitalist democracy, can serve as a bridge between China and the U.S. With regard to China, Hatoyama has said the two countries should forge a "constructive partnership" that would cooperate on "common agendas" like the environment and promoting regional security. And he says he wants to pursue a "more equal" relationship with Washington. That means doing away with programs that his party criticizes as evidence of Tokyo's subservience to -Washington—by pulling out Japanese ships that refuel U.S. warships in the Indian Ocean, for instance, and reducing the footprint of American troops in Okinawa. But it also means advocating for a strong America and the continuation of American influence in the world—while increasing Japan's own role in maintaining international security. Hatoyama's party, the Democratic Party of Japan, is reportedly considering plans to dispatch government and private-sector relief personnel to Afghanistan, something in line with a suggestion made by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke in Tokyo earlier this year.

Underlying all these plans is Hatoyama's much-misconstrued concept of "fraternal love," known as yuai in Japanese. The idea is rooted in the ideals of compassion and balance, but it has been extremely difficult for Hatoyama to explain or for the public—even in his home country—to understand. He preaches, for instance, that "if there is excess of freedom, equality is lost. If there is excess of equality, freedom is lost." That philosophy translates into a desire to find the middle ground between free-market capitalism and egalitarianism, but that message gets easily lost in the koanlike rhetoric.

On matters of foreign policy, the language of yuai is similarly abstruse. In Hatoyama's world view, it means Japan can be a balance between the U.S. and China by limiting Washington's influence in the region, while helping to manage Beijing's ascension as a global power by keeping its military buildup in check. But he also likes to talk of a futuristic vision of an Asia that is integrated into a regional community like the European Union and employs its own regional currency modeled on the euro. He admits this reality is a long way off, and outlines the steps to achieving it in murky formulas such as realizing an East Asian Community by "respecting national regimes with different values" like China and North Korea. Hatoyama often fumbles to explain how "fraternal love" would apply to current, destabilizing issues like North Korea's nuclear program.

This communication failure has already had political consequences. Shortly before he took office, an essay on yuai under Hatoyama's name was excerpted in The New York Times and other American publications, but in its English translation, the truncated 1,300-word version of the 5,300-word original manuscript read like a blunt tirade against America and globalization, not like the original, raising a flurry of concern among U.S. policymakers that Hatoyama was considering an overhaul of the U.S. alliance. For instance, the excerpt included criticism of "U.S.-led globalization," but left out Hatoyama's acknowledgement that globalization is something the world cannot do without. Elsewhere, the excerpt made it sound as though Hatoyama was tilting toward China, and away from America, far more strongly than was suggested in the original. For example, a passage in which the English version speaks of America "fighting" to maintain global status and China "seeking ways" to become a global power is in fact much more negative about China. A more accurate translation would describe China as "machinating to become a hegemonic state."

Hatoyama's yuai philosophy dates back to his grandfather, the late prime minister Ichiro Hatoyama, who wrote in 1953 of his devotion to "a fraternal revolution" that would "avoid extreme left-wing and right-wing ideologies"—a prescient description of the Third Way of the 1990s. Ichiro was later credited with establishing Japanese conservatism as cofounder of the Liberal Democratic Party; yet he also reached out to the Soviet Union as he normalized diplomatic relations with Moscow in 1956, three years before his death. The Hatoyama family, which spans four generations of politicians, is often likened to the Kennedys for its political longevity. Yukio's great--grandfather was speaker of the lower house of Parliament; his father served as foreign minister, and his younger brother, Kunio, entered politics a decade before Yukio—later serving in several cabinet posts as a senior LDP politician. Both his father and brother were involved in the Yuai Youth Association, which promotes Ichiro's philosophy of fraternal love.

For his part, Hatoyama initially had no interest in politics. In the 1970s, he pursued his passion for science and mathematics and earned a Ph.D. from Stanford in operations research—a discipline designed to optimize organizational decision making. He also fell in love with American culture, dragging fellow Japanese students out to the Stanford Cardinals' practice fields on Saturdays to play intramural touch football (he usually played quarterback and is said to still be able to throw a tight spiral). But in 1976, the year of the bicentennial celebration of U.S. independence, Hatoyama was inspired to go into politics when he saw the exuberance of American patriotism and began to wonder why that was so lacking in his own country. He drew further inspiration from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and John F. Kennedy's liberalism.

After completing his Ph.D. in 1976, Hatoyama moved back to Tokyo to teach management engineering at the university level. A decade later he was first elected as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, but he quickly became disgusted with the seniority-based, corrupt, and cozy ways of the LDP and yearned for a cleaner, more efficient government. As his frustration grew, he formed the Study Group on Utopian Politics with fellow LDP members in 1988, which in 1993 became the foundation for a new party that he helped establish after defecting from the LDP. Freed from the shackles of -ruling-party discipline, Hatoyama started promoting his grandfather's philosophy of yuai, and his opponents often ridiculed him for it. When he formed the first incarnation of the DPJ in 1996, former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone mocked him for being "soft, like ice cream." But by 1999, perhaps because of Hatoyama's tenacity and growing influence, Nakasone switched course and said Hatoyama had "what it takes to be prime minister."

Now Hatoyama aims to find a new, centrist road for Japan, which is tricky. Blair and Clinton managed to do so in large part because after nearly a generation of Tory and Republican leadership they had a mandate for policy change and had their respective parties behind them. Hatoyama's victory over the entrenched LDP was no less groundbreaking, but his clout, even in his own party, is not so clear. DPJ secretary-general Ichiro Ozawa leads a major faction and is viewed as a "shadow shogun." He could prove a major obstacle to Hatoyama, who lacks the communication skills of a Blair or Clinton that would allow him to appeal directly to the people. Even many of his countrymen find him befuddling—hence his nickname, "The Alien." And Hatoyama himself says he cannot find the right English translation for his yuai philosophy.

During the election, it was easy for Hatoyama to articulate his policies, thanks to the DPJ's "manifesto," which summarized its campaign promises for voters to understand. But he can't hand out brochures about his foreign and economic policy to every world leader, and in a media world of soundbites and one-liners, misperceptions spread easily. So the prime minister will need figure out a way to balance his ideals with reality and then articulate them in a way that makes sense to other leaders and to the Japanese public. This week, as he takes center stage at the United Nations General Assembly, that challenge begins.