- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

TOKYO — Longtime opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama took office as prime minister on Wednesday, naming a new Cabinet and vowing to rebuild the economy and refocus Japan’s place on the world stage with his largely untested left-of-center party.

Mr. Hatoyama’s victory over the conservatives, who have governed Japan almost nonstop since World War II, marks a major turning point for Japan, which is facing its worst postwar economic slowdown with unemployment at record highs and deflation intensifying.

But concerns run deep over whether the new government will be able to deliver.

Mr. Hatoyama has promised to cut government waste, rein in the national bureaucracy and restart the economy by putting a freeze on planned tax hikes, removing tolls on highways and focusing policies on consumers, not big business.

He also has pledged to improve Tokyo’s often bumpy ties with its Asian neighbors and forge a foreign policy that is more independent of Washington.

“I am excited by the prospect of changing history,” Mr. Hatoyama said. “The battle starts now.”

The new prime minister, who is expected to make his diplomatic debut in New York next week at the United Nations, said he wanted to build a relationship of trust with President Obama by exchanging views “frankly.”

“Japan has been largely passive in our relationship, but I would like to be a more active partner,” he said.

Parliament convened a special session Wednesday to formally select Mr. Hatoyama, whose Democrats won a landslide in parliamentary elections last month to take control of the body’s powerful lower house, ousting Prime Minister Taro Aso’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is conservative and staunchly pro-United States.

In the parliamentary vote to choose the prime minister, Mr. Hatoyama won 327 of the 480 votes in the lower house. He needed a simple majority of 241.

Quickly after his election, Mr. Hatoyama named Katsuya Okada as his foreign minister and Hirohisa Fujii as his finance minister. Though Mr. Okada never has held a Cabinet post, Mr. Fujii was finance minister under a coalition government in 1993-94, the only time in its 55-year history that the Liberal Democrats was ousted from power.

Mr. Fujii was also a former bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance — suggesting that the new government won’t be too confrontational with Japan’s powerful ministries.

“It’s good news that Hatoyama picked Fujii as finance minister,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, a think tank. “He’s experienced. Fujii knows macroeconomic policy.”

Mr. Hatoyama, who has a doctorate from Stanford University and is the grandson of a conservative prime minister, had a limited pool of seasoned politicians from which to choose. His party, created a decade ago, never had held power, and nearly half of its members in the lower house will be serving in their first terms in parliament.

The inexperienced new government is bound to make some missteps, analysts said.

“This is a big change, but change often comes with uncertainty. Beginners usually have some troubles,” Mr. Watanabe said.

Mr. Hatoyama and his party, a mix of defectors from the conservative party and social progressives, face huge tasks with which they must deal quickly.

Although it has recently shown some signs of improvement, Japan’s economy remains deeply shaken by the global financial crisis, and unemployment is at a record high of 5.7 percent. The rapid aging of its population also threatens to be a drag on public coffers as the number of taxpayers decreases and pension responsibilities swell.

“I want the people to feel that their pocketbook situation is improving, even a little, as soon as possible,” Mr. Hatoyama told a news conference.

Voters expressed hope for change and an upturn in the economy.

“I think it is good that now we are trying something new to change the stagnation,” said Osamu Yamamoto, a 49-year-old company employee.

Experts said they had doubts about how effective the new government will be.

“The country has never experienced a leadership change as clear as this,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Now they have to get down to work and achieve their campaign promises as quickly as possible. With upper house elections coming up within a year, they have to produce results, or they will lose voter support.”

Mr. Hatoyama also will be tested quickly on the diplomatic front. He has said he wants to attend the General Assembly in the United Nations in New York next week and possibly meet with Mr. Obama.

Some members of Mr. Hatoyama’s party have said they want to overhaul the U.S.-Japan security alliance under which 50,000 troops are deployed throughout Japan. That idea has met with strong opposition from Washington, although plans are already under way for 8,000 Marines to be relocated from the southern island of Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam.

Mr. Hatoyama said he has no intention of backing down on plans to push for a review of the U.S. military presence, but he also said he did not intend to push the issue right away.

“I would like to build a relationship of trust with President Obama. In order to deepen our trust, it would be most important for us to exchange views frankly,” Mr. Hatoyama told the news conference. “That’s the first step.”

Associated Press writers Malcolm J. Foster and Kaori Hitomi contributed to this report.

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