Japan's next PM: change agent, but he's no Obama

Yukio Hatoyama comes from four generations of politicians from the ruling LDP, which his DPJ party just ousted from power.

Japan's next prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, hailed his party's landslide victory Sundayas a "revolution" in a nation where one party dominated politics for more than half a century.

As head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which crushed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in lower house elections, Mr. Hatoyama has pledged to end bureaucratic rule and two-decade-long economic doldrums. He began forming a government Monday and said he will announce his cabinet after he is officially named prime minister in a few weeks.

Despite his reformist rhetoric, however, Hatoyama comes from a traditional political background: He's a fourth-generation politician and former lawmaker for the LDP whose grandfather helped found the party.

"Hatoyama is not a Barack Obama," says Minoru Morita, an independent political analyst. "Like shadow shogun Ichiro Ozawa [an influential member of the DPJ], Hatoyama used to be an LDP member."

He's also closely tied with Mr. Ozawa, who led the DPJ until he was forced to step down in May amid a funding scandal and will continue to exert influence in the new government, say analysts.

"Hatoyama has been closely associated with Ozawa, who wants to create a new conservative party," says Mr. Morita.

Four generations in the LDP

Hatoyama's political pedigree is well known. His great-grandfather, Kazuo, served as speaker of the lower house. His grandfather, Ichiro, helped found the LDP and became its first president. His father, Iichiro, was a lawmaker and foreign minister. His younger brother, Kunio, is an LDP member and served in the cabinet of current Prime Minister Taro Aso until June.

Hatoyama graduated from Tokyo University and then got a PhD in engineering from Stanford University. After working as assistant professor at Senshu University, he ran for office in 1986, and was first elected to the lower house of parliament (the Diet) as a member of the ruling LDP.

In 1993, he left the party amid infighting over political reform and served as deputy chief cabinet secretary in a short-lived coalition led by former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. It held power for 11 months before the LDP took over again.

For the next several years Hatoyama helped forge the DPJ and led the party for three years. During his tenure, he was frequently criticized as detached and indecisive. His appearance and mannerisms earned him the nickname "alien."

Interestingly, Hatoyama's grandfather also replaced Mr. Aso's grandfather, then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida.

As hereditary politicians have lost popularity in Japan (see stories here and here), Hatoyama criticized some dynastic LDP members such as former prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda for "lacking courage" because they left office abruptly.

He tried to downplay his own political heritage and remind voters that, unlike others, he ventured outside his family's political stronghold and campaigned vigorously in Hokkaido, the nation's northern island.

Big challenges ahead

Hatoyama has promised to shift the government's focus from companies to people. With Japan's economy in the midst of its worst recession since World War II, Hatoyama, unlike most LDP leaders, often addressed the issues of economic disparity and suicides – which is set to top 30,000 for the 12th straight year.

The new leader faces several other daunting tasks, including a rapidly aging population that will strain social security and record low unemployment.

On foreign policy, Hatoyama, like other DPJ leaders, have criticized the LDP-led government for what it calls subservient relations with the United States. Hatoyama wants to reduce Japan's dependency on the US, though the alliance will most likely remain strong.

Hatoyama is expected to participate in the United Nations General Assembly in late September, where he will make a speech in support of nuclear disarmament. Then the new Japanese leader is likely to have his first meeting with President Barack Obama, according to Japanese media reports.

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