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Former US president Barack Obama described his 2009 visit to Japan in the first of the planned two volumes of his presidential memoirs. Photo: AP

Obama ‘not in a position to criticise’ Japan’s politics in memoir: analyst

  • The former US president wrote in A Promised Land that ex-PM Yukio Hatoyama was ‘awkward’ and Tokyo’s politics was ‘aimless’ during his term
  • But a Japanese professor said Obama should consider some of his own policy failures, such as his ‘weak and ineffective’ policies on China
In a memoir released on Tuesday, former US president Barack Obama recalled his frustration with Japan’s era of revolving-door prime ministers and the leadership of one of his former counterparts, Yukio Hatoyama. 

“A pleasant if awkward fellow, Hatoyama was Japan’s fourth prime minister in less than three years and the second since I’d taken office – a symptom of the sclerotic, aimless politics that had plagued Japan for much of the decade,” Obama, 59, wrote in his new book titled A Promised Land.

It is the first of the planned two volumes of Obama’s presidential memoirs, covering his eight years in office from 2009, and was released two weeks after the US election in which Republican Donald Trump was defeated by Democrat Joe Biden, who had been Obama’s vice-president.

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Hatoyama became prime minister from the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan when it swept to power in 2009, ending more than half a century of nearly uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party.

But he stepped down in less than nine months and the DPJ eventually lost its hold on power as the LDP’s Shinzo Abe returned as premier in December 2012 and served until September 2020.

Sometimes dubbed “the alien” for his departures from convention, including rapid policy reversals, Hatoyama, 73, is said to have aroused mistrust in the United States over his botched handling of a bilaterally agreed plan to relocate a key US Marine base within Okinawa prefecture.

After telling Obama to “trust me” over the plan, which faced local opposition, Hatoyama at one point pursued a different approach that defied the Japan-US agreement.

Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, suggested that Obama should consider some of his own policy failures before criticising the shortcomings of other nations.

“We know that Japan’s political system has some deficiencies and I would say that most Japanese would welcome friendly advice on what we might do differently or better, but I do not think that Obama is in a position to criticise when his policies on China, for example, were weak and ineffective,” he said.

In this 2009 photo, Japan's former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama (far left) is pictured with former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, former US president Barack Obama, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and China's former president Hu Jintao at the Apec summit in Singapore. Photo: AP
And while the former American president’s thoughts on Hatoyama have some merit – Shimada said the former Japanese prime minister “lacked principles” and was widely scorned at home – he believes that Obama grew to respect and trust Shinzo Abe when he took on the leadership of Japan.

“I think Abe changed the way Obama thought about Japanese politics,” he said. “Obama probably initially saw Abe as a right-winger, a troublemaker who would stir up problems with China, South Korea and other countries, but step-by-step, Abe showed him that Japan could be a good partner.”

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Ken Kato, a Tokyo-based businessman who is also a member of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said he was “surprised” at the description of domestic politics as being sclerotic and aimless in the decade leading up to Hatoyama’s brief administration.

He concurred, however, with Obama’s assessment of the government under the Democratic Party of Japan, which he said would have angered Washington for its “empty promises”.

Barack Obama greets former Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in Tokyo in 2009. Photo: Reuters

In the memoir, Obama also recounted his meeting with then Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko during his first visit to Japan after assuming the presidency, in which he stirred controversy in the United States for having bowed too low.

“Later, I learned that my simple bow to my elderly Japanese hosts had sent conservative commentators into a fit back home,” he said.

“Hearing all this, I pictured the emperor entombed in his ceremonial duties and the empress, with her finely worn, greying beauty and smile brushed with melancholy, and I wondered when exactly such a sizeable portion of the American Right had become so frightened and insecure that they’d completely lost their minds,” he added.