Yukio Hatoyama grew up in a palace with a garden full of roses, a façade full of elegant French windows, and a ground floor full of politicians. Such was only natural. The boy’s grandfather was prime minister, his father foreign minister and Yukio grew up to become, in 2009, a notable prime minister of Japan himself.
Now retired from politics at 69, the man they call “The Alien” for his otherworldliness is still the only postwar opposition leader to beat the Liberal Democratic party in an election. (The LDP is now back in power under Shinzo Abe.) He continues to court controversy — visiting the Crimean peninsula last year, where he endorsed Russia’s annexation as “democratic”.
Hatoyama’s own home in the Tokyo suburb of Denen-Chofu is modest compared with Hatoyama Hall — now a museum to the family’s political accomplishments — but in the western details, and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on to the garden, there are echoes of the house where he was raised.
The ex-prime minister built his own home 35 years ago, after returning from the US with a PhD in industrial engineering from Stanford and his wife Miyuki, a former chorus girl in the Takarazuka theatre, who was working at a restaurant in San Francisco when they met. The couple are famously close. Hatoyama’s mother, heiress to the Bridgestone tyre fortune, bought the land for the house and sponsored his political career.
“I lived in Hatoyama Hall for a long time and I certainly got used to western-style living, but it’s too big for a private home, so it wasn’t necessarily a model,” he says. A bigger influence than his childhood home were the apartments that the Hatoyamas rented in San Francisco.
“Those apartments gave us the sense of how we wanted to live,” says Hatoyama, putting the design down to his wife, who is well known in Japan as a lifestyle guru, cookbook author and maker of the occasional wacky comment. “In particular, the parts we use most — the living room, the kitchen, the bedrooms — are well-designed for comfort, I think.”
Certainly the kitchen is more spacious and welcoming than in many Tokyo homes, where it tends to be tucked away in a niche, a space for cooking rather than living. It is a cheery house, but like many in a land where earthquakes rule out the use of masonry, it lacks the solidity of its western models.
In 2009, Hatoyama moved out and lived in the prime minister’s official residence, a decision he now regrets. “You need somewhere you can truly relax,” he says of his struggle to switch off while living above the office. “The official residence was built by bureaucrats, so it’s probably good for bureaucrats, but for someone living there it’s easy to get down in the dumps.”
Hatoyama’s unhappiness in the official fishbowl hints at the problems that beset his administration. His Democratic party had no experience of government and its Asia-centred foreign policy was alien to a bureaucracy reared on the US-Japan alliance. Hatoyama was forced to break a pledge to relocate a US Marine base on Okinawa and his premiership quickly unravelled.
Looking back, Hatoyama feels betrayed by his officials, and wishes he had talked directly to the US president, Barack Obama. “The message they were sending to the Americans was: ‘Don’t listen to what Hatoyama is saying’.”
His other regret is failing to make any progress with Russia on the longstanding territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands. This is family business for Hatoyama, as it is for Abe; both of their fathers tried, and failed, to settle the issue with Moscow. Hatoyama urges his successor to resume negotiations with Vladimir Putin. “For that reason, I think it’s time to lift sanctions [on Russia],” he says.
The sanctions stem from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Hatoyama regards the annexation as legitimate, however, and in 2015 he became one of very few world leaders to visit what most still regard as a part of Ukraine seized in violation of international law.
“Crimea is being governed by the people of Crimea,” he says, insisting that those people expressed their desire to be part of Russia in a democratic referendum. “They say if you want another referendum, we’ll have one, and it’ll show even greater support for being part of Russia.”
Hatoyama’s stance on Crimea shows a quality that defined his political career: a lot of liberal idealism, applied indiscriminately. To Abe and the LDP, Crimea is a terrible precedent that could one day be used against Japan in its own territorial disputes, such as over the island chain it calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu.
In contrast to the constitutional path Scotland followed in its 2014 referendum on independence from the UK — which Hatoyama mentions as an example — Crimea’s vote followed Russian military intervention. But Hatoyama declines to make a distinction. “If the chance arises in the future, I’ll think about visiting again,” he says.
Crimea is not the only place where Hatoyama has upset the Abe government. In 2013, he issued an apology for Japanese war crimes in the Chinese city of Nanjing, while last year he knelt and apologised at a South Korean memorial to political prisoners tortured and executed by the Imperial Japanese army.
“Whether the number is 300,000 or tens of thousands, there is no doubt that many were killed in Nanjing, so I think it is completely natural that a former prime minister — who in some sense represents the nation — should go and apologise,” he says.
“I’m going to carry on, and I’m sure the more I do, the more the government will criticise me, but I won’t let it bother me and I’ll carry on doing my thing regardless,” he says. “Even if I can contribute just a little to building the east Asian community then I’m glad.”
Under Abe, Japan has swung away from Hatoyama’s vision of better relations with its east Asian neighbours, and back to the familiar comforts of the US-Japan alliance. Its certainties have been rocked, however, by US presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has accused Tokyo of freeriding, and demanded that Japan pays more towards its defence.
Hatoyama has no time for Trump’s politics — he is more of a Bernie Sanders man — but sees the Republican nominee as a chance to make Japan think about what it gets out of the US. “How far do we really need the US-Japan alliance? If Japan has to pay more then is it something we really need for our national security? I think it’ll stir up debate and open people’s eyes.”
That nickname, “The Alien”, was variously blamed on his slightly bulging eyes, his seeming naivety and his wide-eyed scientific remarks. But it also reflects something more fundamental. To those in the heaving human scrum of politics, Hatoyama — the quiet, scholarly rich kid — just seemed different, a visitor from somewhere else.
Hatoyama plans to live out his iconoclastic retirement in Denen-Chofu although, with a touch of patrician disdain, he notes how the area is changing. One of the only parts of Tokyo built to a master plan, the suburb is modelled on the garden cities of early 20th-century England. It has always been an exclusive address, popular with diplomatic families, but discreet family villas such as Hatoyama’s are slowly losing out to the high-walled mansions and flashy modernist piles of the nouveau riche.
“It used to be a whole, but it’s losing that little by little as people who succeed in business build their own homes, and that sense of balance gradually disappears,” he says, before hastening to add that he means no criticism.
True to his reputation, the man who was born in a palace is still just a little out of step, still a little alien from the society he once led — too much of a scientist to say what the public wants to hear, but too much of a politician to be silent.
Hatoyama strolls through the kitchen to point out his favourite thing. It is a painting by his wife Miyuki that is full of scenes from their early days together in the US. They are touching memories. Here are the couple, looking hip in Stanford red, at a gaming table in Reno. There they are, pictured from behind, watching the geyser Old Faithful. There is the time their car broke down in the desert. “When I graduated I was in no hurry to come back,” he says. “It was like being in heaven.”
Robin Harding is the FT’s Tokyo bureau chief
Photographs: Jeremie Souteyrat