Doubts Grow in Japan About Premier Amid Money Scandal
TOKYO — Japan’s prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, will soon offer written testimony to prosecutors saying that he had no direct role in a campaign finance scandal that has dogged his fledgling government, according to Japanese newspapers. But while he is widely expected to survive the scandal, analysts say it has helped feed doubts among some voters about his leadership.
There is now talk in Tokyo that voters may be showing signs of cooling toward Mr. Hatoyama’s government, which swept into power three months ago with pledges for fundamental change in Japan’s postwar order. While Mr. Hatoyama’s approval ratings remain high, they are starting to slip amid growing questions about his leadership and his ability to manage this long-stagnant nation, analysts said.
“Every day, he seems to say and do something different,” said Minoru Morita, a political commentator who runs an independent research organization in Tokyo. “This is starting to shake the people’s confidence in him.”
Most voters still appeared to be willing to give Mr. Hatoyama and his Democratic Party more time to deliver on their promises to rein in the powerful bureaucracy and build a more consumer-focused economy. But political experts warned that a failure to show results in crucial areas like reviving Japan’s moribund job market could lead to a rapid erosion of support.
At first, voters seemed not to be much bothered by the financial scandal because much of the money came from Mr. Hatoyama or his mother, a wealthy heiress. But now, analysts say, it is precisely that explanation that is starting to cool public opinion of the prime minister. By highlighting the considerable wealth of his family, the scandal is starting to raise doubts about how in touch he is with the worsening economic plight of average Japanese.
According to reports in Japanese newspapers, Mr. Hatoyama will soon deliver a written statement to Tokyo prosecutors in which he will deny knowledge of some $4 million in donations that prosecutors say were improperly reported, sometimes in the names of dead people. The reports say he will also tell prosecutors that he did not know of millions of dollars more that his group received from his mother. Mr. Hatoyama’s office said it had no knowledge of the statement.
The reports said that prosecutors were considering whether to charge one of Mr. Hatoyama’s former political secretaries for misreporting the funds, but that they would not charge the prime minister with a crime.
Still, just the fact that Mr. Hatoyama could get mired in such a campaign finance scandal has already hurt his credibility as a reformer, analysts say.
Polls show that Mr. Hatoyama’s approval ratings are slipping from their highs of more than 70 percent after he took office in September. A poll released Monday by Japan’s national public broadcasting corporation, NHK, found that 56 percent of 1,111 voters questioned by telephone from Dec. 11 to 13 said they approved of him, with 34 percent saying they did not approve. The poll gave no margin of error, as is customary here.
The credibility of Mr. Hatoyama’s government suffered another blow this week when members of his Democratic Party decided to shelve plans to eliminate an unpopular tax on gasoline. The party said the money was needed to help offset Japan’s soaring national debt.
In recent weeks, major newspapers and magazines have pilloried Mr. Hatoyama for inconsistent comments on whether to renegotiate a 2006 deal to relocate an American air base on Okinawa. Criticisms reached a new pitch after Mr. Hatoyama decided Tuesday to postpone indefinitely a decision on the base.