The United States and Japan have been many things to each other: mortal enemies, worrisome economic rivals, steadfast allies. Of late, the two countries have refocused on their ties in light of an uptick in concerns about regional security, territorial disputes and trade issues. Earlier, in a rare alignment, two Stanford alumni were positioned at the intersection of the two nations—one, the prime minister of Japan; the other, U.S. ambassador to Japan. Talking with each of them proved instructive about the fluid nature of geopolitics, and about parallels between the shifting political tides in each country.

Reformer Interrupted

yukio hatoyama
Photo: Platon

As a rule, Japanese prime ministers don't last very long, and Yukio Hatoyama followed the rule. Resigning last June after only nine months in office, he didn't fare as well as his grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, who served as prime minister for two years, about average for Japanese premiers since the 1880s.

Short as Ichiro's tenure was, he co-founded the right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party, which went on to govern Japan almost continuously for more than 50 years. Two generations later, Yukio, who quit the LDP in 1993, helped found what became the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan. In September 2009 it won a landslide in lower-house elections, ousting the LDP from power.

Hatoyama, MS '72, MS '73, PhD '76, could well go down in the history books for leading the DPJ to victory and ending de facto one-party rule in Japan. And if the party can stay in power, a big if, it could proceed to its next order of business: clipping the wings of the country's bureaucracy, which Hatoyama sees as the real power in Japan.

As with the 2008 U.S. presidential election, hopes had run high for a new dawn in Japanese politics. Hatoyama called for ending government gridlock—just as Obama pledged to overcome partisan paralysis on Capitol Hill—and he vowed to take a more independent stance toward the United States. But despite each leader's historic victory, ensuing events dampened hopes on both sides of the Pacific.

Stanford queued for an appointment with Hatoyama almost from the week he took office, in hopes our turn would come during his tenure. Alas, fallout soon rained down from a party funding scandal. Myriad other troubles loomed for the young government, one especially unforgivable: The DPJ had made an election promise to move the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station (Futenma) off Okinawa, Japan's southernmost island prefecture, but had to renege in the absence of an alternative site agreement—just before last July's upper-house elections.

The issue was too explosive to skate around. Okinawa, seized by the United States in 1945, had returned to Japanese administration in 1972; but the airbase remained a festering sore for many locals fed up with aircraft noise, civilian safety worries and environmental concerns. Still, Hatoyama's proposal would have breached the 2006 U.S.-Japan agreement to move some forces to Guam and some to a less crowded part of Okinawa—not off it. It looked to detractors like a cheap vote-getter. As it turned out, Hatoyama apologized for breaking his election pledge and resigned the premiership. But it wasn't enough to prevent the party from losing its hold on parliament's upper house in the July election. Like the Democrats after the U.S. midterms, the DPJ now controlled only one house, making headway on reforms even more difficult.

On September 6, an appointment finally in hand, we meet Yukio Hatoyama, member of the House of Representatives, in his private office a half-hour walk from the National Diet Building. His aide Keitaro Haga leads the way into a bright, un-prime-ministerial reception area. In the far corner to the right, there's a kettle and tea things; diagonally opposite is Hatoyama's office.

Today, Hatoyama is dressed strictly for business—dark suit, white shirt, tasteful floral-patterned tie—but the man Japanese media has tagged "the alien" or "ET" for his offbeat look and manner is known for pushing the sartorial envelope. He has appeared in public, for example, in a white shirt with bright red hearts plastered all over, or in explosions of gingham in which every piece of the shirt—sleeves, front sections, collars and cuffs—is a different-colored check pattern. ("Hatoyama shirts," looking like patchwork from a tablecloth factory outlet, sell online for $500.)

His office is comfortable, unfussy. A large desk, crowned by a large Dell laptop, looks onto the room from the window wall at the far end. Visitors can see a medley of photographs on the wall from his time as prime minister, dominated by ones taken with President Obama. Bookcases, more Office Depot than Office of State, are scattered against the walls, filled with ring binders and books, including his old Stanford course catalogue. Devoid of props and artifice, this place looks like the office where the work gets done.

Hatoyama, whose family has been likened to the Kennedy political dynasty, initially planned a tech career. He graduated from Tokyo University with his hopes set on graduate studies in bioengineering and artificial intelligence at Stanford—under John McCarthy, a pioneer in the field. McCarthy was on sabbatical, however, so Hatoyama moved on to operations research. He remembers two especially gifted teachers, George Dantzig and Gerald Lieberman. Lieberman would later become vice provost, then dean of research and after that, dean of graduate studies. In Hatoyama's eyes, his contribution to linear programming could have qualified him for a Nobel.

Hatoyama brought the right technology home. "Operations research was still immature in Japan, so after coming back, I went to teach at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and [later] Senshu University," he says. "I wanted to look at quality control and product reliability and continue study and research from an engineering management perspective."

But politics was in the family blood. His great-grandfather, Kazuo, had been a speaker in the House of Representatives; grandfather Ichiro, thrice prime minister; and his father, also Ichiro, served as foreign minister in the mid-1970s. Hatoyama became private secretary to his father for a few years before taking the plunge and running for office. He won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1986.

It is not uncommon for Japan's political families to keep the machinery oiled and ready for succeeding generations—Hatoyama's three immediate predecessors as prime minister all had either a father or grandfather who held the office—although the DPJ is pledged to somehow put a stop to hereditary politics.

As Hatoyama sees it, one reason his party won the general election in 2009 was its promise to end the civil service's stranglehold on policy. "Over the long period that the LDP was in power, this system was built up. It was said that the politicians stood over the bureaucracy, but in reality the civil service always made the policy decisions. The reason there was a change of power was, I believe, because the Japanese people could no longer tolerate it. We felt there was a need to make fundamental reforms in the bureaucratic organization—so that we, the politicians, make the decisions and they execute what we decide. [The DPJ] would like to make this happen and open the way to a new politics in Japan."

As it stands, parties cover the ideological spectrum; and strong factions within the larger parties, each jockeying for more power, complicate things further. Beyond this, any party hoping to form a government usually has to depend on coalition partners to muster the required majority—marriages of convenience that often end in tears. Add economic and other increasingly vexing issues to this rickety arrangement and one begins to see why prime ministers and cabinets don't last long.

Japan is on its fifth prime minister in four years. There has been talk of the DPJ, a smorgasbord of political remnants running from socialists to populist right-wingers, splintering to pieces—Hatoyama's successor, Naoto Kan, had to fend off a challenge for the party presidency just three months into his tenure. Politicians come and go and return constantly: Hatoyama's grandfather resigned the premiership but won it back twice. Younger brother Kunio quit the LDP to join the DPJ, then rejoined his old party, serving in the cabinet of Taro Aso, Hatoyama's predecessor.

Doesn't this continuing parade of new leaders and governments explain why the bureaucrats remain in charge? "Good point!" Hatoyama says in English before switching back to Japanese. "And this is why the bureaucrats are so happy with the situation right now."

Each country has its own legacy of gridlock. In the United States, top civil servants are nominated by the president then put through a lengthy congressional approval process, which explains why President Obama struggled long into his term to fill key positions. In Japan, as in many parliamentary democracies, top civil servants are usually permanent appointees serving one government to the next, which explains why they often have a better grasp of de-partmental briefs than the politicians sitting around the cabinet table.

In the BBC's classic TV comedies Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, permanent secretaries are always miring their political bosses in swamps of obstruction so that nothing the politicians set out to do ever gets done. In Japan, it's not a joke. As former U.S. ambassador Edwin Reischauer wrote in his book The Japanese, "each ministry develops its own stands and policies on controversial issues and fights for these in competition with other ministries, and even with the party in power."

Why not simply fire civil servants who refuse to implement government policy? "It's possible to fire, demote or reassign bureaucrats who have broken laws," Hatoyama answers. "But we cannot do that to civil servants who don't agree with our policies—that is why we are trying to change the law right now."

Hatoyama cites two major policy proposals that had him banging heads with senior bureaucrats. Both addressed demographic shifts that many developed countries face, but that are more imminent and drastic in Japan.

"In Japan we suffer from a low birthrate," he says. "If things stay as they are, there will be very few children in our future, so we've reached a very critical point. Providing educational opportunities to children is critical in that sense. The opportunity to receive education should not be affected by the economic status of the parent—so this is why we moved ahead with a policy to provide a child care allowance until children graduate from junior high school. We also made sure high school would be free [for needy cases] so that any child who wants to go to high school can do so without any financial pressure." He made some headway with the child-care initiative, although full implementation must wait till the ministry of finance frees budget for it, which seems less than sure.

An aging population is the other side of the crisis, but Hatoyama was stopped in his tracks trying to open up immigration to help expand elder care services. Bureaucrats ruled that foreigners with the requisite healthcare skills would have to first pass Japanese language tests to qualify, a ruling that eliminated all but a handful of prospects.

A fifth of Japan's 127 million people are 65 or over, a demographic expected to grow through 2047. With deaths increasingly outstripping births, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research projects Japan's population could dip below 100 million by mid-century. If trends continue unattended, the ratio of income earners to dependents will skew dramatically, shrinking markets, the tax base and the whole economy.

Why not follow Singapore's aggressive immigration policy, which encourages skilled professionals with children to settle in the city-state to offset its shrinking native-born population? "I'm basically on the same page as you," Hatoyama begins. "I think it's important to create an environment that provides an opportunity for foreign people to come to Japan. However, many Japanese, and even the ministry of justice, are still conservative in that sense." Many worry about losing their jobs, he says, especially if too many professionals or, worse, nonprofessionals came into the workforce.

"However, I believe we should make Japan a country where a lot of foreigners, especially Asians, want to come and work, and I think it is the role of politics to make that happen." If only a government can hold together long enough to swing it.

Hatoyama retreats to his desk at one point to fetch something. It is a personal, handwritten letter from Barack Obama that Hatoyama hasn't made public. Written after he resigned as prime minister, it is a neatly penned goodbye and thank you from the American president. "What President Obama said in his letter was that I had been true to my word and had respected the Japan-U.S. alliance. But I was sure the Japanese media would react with cynicism, so I never showed it to them."

Being true to one side meant letting down the other, and the issue still weighs on him. "I feel it's most important that Japan and the U.S. have a reliable and trustful relationship. That said, I thought that the pressure on Okinawa had become just too much, and I wanted to relocate Futenma off Okinawa if possible. But no one raised their hands up to volunteer to let the base in—so because of time limitations, I had to ask Okinawans to once again bear the burden. But I feel we need to spend the time and the effort together with the United States so we can relieve the burden on Okinawa."

When the conversation turns to China, Hatoyama pauses thoughtfully. "As China tries to make progress with its economy, Japan as a neighbor should support that. But since there are also security issues, I believe Japan should collaborate with the United States on security toward China. In this area, we share similar feelings with South Korea and Southeast Asian countries, and for us the American presence is critical—so in that sense, I feel that to maintain a good and friendly relationship between the United States and the Asian countries, including Japan, is the most important thing for us." A few days later, his point was underscored when the Japanese coast guard seized a Chinese trawler after a collision off resource-rich islands claimed by both countries.

Then there's the economy to consider. "While maintaining this relationship with the United States, it's also important for Japan to closely collaborate with China in other areas. For instance, we have received a request from China for help to create an eco-friendly industrial park/zone. We have technologies such as eco-friendly car manufacturing and urban planning, so this is an area where I definitely feel we should cooperate with China."

In 2009, China displaced Japan as the world's second- largest economy. Are Japanese, like Americans, gloomy over China's ascendance in terms of lost jobs? "Right now, the economy does look gloomy for Japan for the future. But we want to look at China positively, believing that ultimately [its success] will have a positive effect on the Japanese economy. And I feel we have to lead [opinion] so things move in that direction."

Our Man in Japan

in August, John Roos became the first American ambassador to Japan to attend annual Hiroshima memorial services, 65 years after the atomic bomb devastated the city. "When I had first come to Japan, I went to Hiroshima with my family and it was a powerful experience," he says. Returning for the anniversary, Roos explains, presented an opportunity to pay respects to all war victims while advancing President Obama's agenda of eliminating nuclear weapons in a demonstrable way. "[But] ultimately it was the president's call."

Plucked by Barack Obama from the CEO's suite at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, the blue-chip Silicon Valley law firm, Roos, '77, JD '80, follows a long line of government heavyweights who held the post, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Senate majority leaders Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker, House Speaker Tom Foley, Vice President Walter Mondale and others—among them, career diplomats Edwin Reischauer and Michael Armacost, now a senior fellow at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute.

Settling in the library of the ambassador's residence, Roos opts for the settee below a portrait of a distracted-looking Benjamin Franklin. "I didn't seek the appointment," says the onetime Obama campaign fund-raiser. But Obama was looking for "a fresh perspective," he says, and Roos certainly was a government outsider.

"When you look at the range of issues an ambassador deals with, my background from a legal perspective in bringing people together and negotiating deals, and my background in technology and renewable energy and some of the things the president wants to accomplish in that area, there's a broad range of things I hope I bring to the table."

Roos's brief covers the gamut. Trade priorities include ensuring access for American beef and a level playing field for U.S. banks and insurers after the Japan Post financial colossus is fully privatized. Regional security remains focused on ending North Korea's nuclear threat. Legal concerns run to children abducted from the United States by ex-spouses returning to Japan; convincing Japan to sign the Hague Convention would result in Japanese courts recognizing the rights of Americans who in some cases have not seen their children for years. And there is the challenge of reversing declines in Japanese studying in the United States.

The ambassador's agenda expanded on the day Stanford visited, when the Japanese coast guard seized a Chinese trawler off the resource-rich, highly disputed Senkaku Islands, known to Chinese as the Diaoyutai Islands. The incident set off anti-Japanese demonstrations in China. Among other countermeasures, Beijing reportedly moved to cut back exports of rare earth minerals critical to Japan's electronics and automotive industries.

Roos has had to deal with a succession of prime ministers, three in just over a year. "The way I view my responsibility is to always look ahead, to always meet not only with current leadership, but the current minority, the up-coming leaders."

Roos has been stretched from Okinawa in the south, where some locals fume over the presence of U.S. forces, to the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea's November bomb attack killed four South Koreans, scuppering efforts to resume the six-party talks (with China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia and the United States) on ending the North's nuclear arms program. "Obviously, North Korea is an immediate concern," Roos says. "There is also the potential for regime change, given the instability of the leadership, so North Korea presents a lot of challenges."

Has anything there really changed? "There has been considerable change to the extent that the international community is on the same page, working together to impose sanctions on North Korea," Roos answers. "Hopefully, the actions we're taking now through peaceful sanctions will lead to a change of behavior."

While the Rooses' daughter, Lauren, and son, David, '14, remain in California, Suzy (Herbst) Roos, '78, has been making her own diplomatic mark between commutes to her San Francisco law office. Breaking with the State Department custom of displaying strictly American art, she organized Ties Over Time, a show devoted to works by Japanese artists who studied or lived in the United States. Despite appearances, the moody Franklin picture in the library is not a portrait, but a Hiroshi Sugimoto photograph of a wax statue of Franklin. Another trace of Suzy's handiwork is Yoko Ono's "Wish Tree" in the hall leading to the vast drawing room where MacArthur received Emperor Hirohito. She also staged a concert by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, who strummed his way through "The Star-Spangled Banner," among other pieces.

Born and raised in San Francisco, John Roos makes a natural evangelist for Silicon Valley's ethos of get up and go. "One of the things we're working hard at here is really encouraging a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship." Japanese are able innovators, he says, but they're risk-averse and that impedes development of a Silicon Valley-type model.

"There's a lot of capital in Japan, but not a lot of risk capital. The way someone starts a company here (obviously, this isn't across the board) is to borrow money from a bank, often personally guaranteeing that loan. And if the company fails, not only does that founder owe that money—which makes a person less likely to start a company in the first place—there is also a stigma of failure," Roos says.

However, "There are a lot of role models here, and one of the things I'm doing as ambassador is helping to put a spotlight on the success stories as well as make the connections to the Silicon Valley," he says, adding that he spends a lot of time talking about how the components of a Silicon Valley ecosystem can translate into the Japanese system.

A core component is Stanford, and Roos is encouraged by the strength of its presence in Japan. "From the first day I arrived, I have met people with Stanford connections in government and in business," he says, putting Yukio Hatoyama, MS '72, MS '73, PhD '76, at the top of his list. Next year, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology will open with Jonathan Dorfan, professor of particle physics and astrophysics (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) and former SLAC director, as president. As it draws researchers from around the world and starts spinning out new companies, Roos says, "OIST can provide a role model for how the ecosystem for the Silicon Valley was created and thrives."

JOEL McCORMICK is a writer and editor based in Hong Kong and the Bay Area.