Archive for May, 2010

Visiting the Hatoyama mansion, a “shrine of aristocratic privilege”

May 11, 2010

Finding myself with a free afternoon in central Tokyo not too long ago, I decided to drop in at Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s house.

I’m not referring to his official residence – I doubt they’d let me in — but to his stately family home in Bunkyo Ward. At the top of a steep ridge a seven-minute walk from Edogawabashi Station on the Yurakucho subway line, it has been turned into a museum that began attracting streams of visitors when Yukio Hatoyama was elected prime minister last year. (See its official website here.)

Yukio Hatoyama

The 2009 election was arguably the most significant event in 21st-century Japanese history so far, as Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) smashed the grip the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had held on political power for more than 50 years. Not only did the DPJ win more than twice as many Diet seats as the LDP for an overwhelming majority, but the shrunken LDP has been slowly self-destructing ever since, as several of its remaining Diet members have defected to start their own parties. Of course, it may be that the DPJ is also self-destructing, as the current Cabinet’s approval rating has plummeted and its once magnificent potential is being squandered as Hatoyama flounders about amid a national uproar – mostly of his own making – over the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps base in Okinawa. (The Economist provides an overview of the present mess here.)

Ichiro Hatoyama

The Hatoyama family has been involved on all sides of the situation. Not only does Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama head the DPJ, but his grandfather Ichiro Hatoyama was a founder of the LDP and its first prime minister (1954-56). And Yukio’s brother, Kunio Hatoyama, a former cabinet minister, is among the LDP Diet members who recently broke off to go independent or found splinter parties.

And as if that weren’t enough political power for one family, Yukio and Kunio’s father, Iichiro Hatoyama, was also a cabinet minister, and their great-grandfather Kazuo Hatoyama was speaker of Japan’s House of Representatives (1896-97) and later the president of prestigious Waseda University. And Kazuo’s wife Haruko founded a women’s university.

But wait – there’s more! Yukio Hatoyama’s mother Yasuko is the daughter of Shojiro Ishibashi, the founder of the Bridgestone tire company. The family is so loaded that when it was alleged that the current prime minister had failed to pay gift tax on 1.25 billion yen (approximately $121 million) that he had received from his mother, his defense was that he was unaware that she had given him the money.

Kazuo and Haruko Hatoyama

And even with that, you still have to pay 500 yen (about $5.40) if you want to visit their old family home. I guess the fee keeps out the riffraff.

As W. David Marx wrote on CNNgo recently: “Oh the irony: A sweeping political change towards broader democracy has only created greater interest in this Bunkyo-ku shrine of aristocratic privilege.”

It certainly is ironic, but at the same time aristocratic privilege is a depressingly entrenched aspect of Japanese politics. According to Wikipedia (not infallible, but probably roughly reliable in this case) here are the family backgrounds of Yukio Hatoyama’s 10 most recent predecessors as prime minister:

Taro Aso (2008-09) is a grandson of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida and heir to a cement company fortune. His wife is a daughter of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, and his sister is married to a first cousin of Emperor Akihito.

Yasuo Fukuda (2007-08) is the son of Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda.

Shinzo Abe (2006-07) is the grandson of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.

Junichiro Koizumi (2001-06) is the son of a Diet member and a grandson of a cabinet minister.

Yoshiro Mori (2000-01) is the son and grandson of small-town mayors.

Keizo Obuchi (1998-2000) was the son of a Diet member, and was succeeded in the Diet by his own daughter.

Ryutaro Hashimoto (1996-98) was the half-brother of a prefectural governor and the father of a Diet member.

Tomiichi Murayama (1994-96) was the son of a fisherman.

Tsutomu Hata (1994) was the son of a Diet member.

Morihiro Hosokawa (1993-94) is the grandson of Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe.

Returning to the Hatoyama family, the name “Hatoyama” literally translates as “Dove Mountain” (or more fancifully, “Pigeon Peak”). Presumably for that reason, doves are a major motif in their mansion’s décor. Owls and deer are less prominently featured. The bronze, plaster and glass doves are the single most interesting thing about their house, with the other main point of interest being a plaster death mask of Ichiro Hatoyama that is on display in a second-floor room where photography is not allowed.

If you are a traveler with a limited number of days in Tokyo, I would not suggest putting the Hatoyama mansion on your must-see list, but in you live in the area and have some time to kill, it is just barely worth 500 yen as a curiosity.

Meanwhile, if you want to see the house in an entirely different light, that CNNgo story I mentioned earlier reports that the Hatoyama mansion has been used as the setting of an erotic video game.

Oh, the indignity!

Barry Eisler’s “Fault Line”

May 1, 2010

Barry Eisler’s novel “Fault Line” was released in paperback earlier this week. Here’s a very brief review I wrote when the book was first published last year:

“Fault Line” is being touted as Barry Eisler’s “first stand-alone thriller.” But its three main characters – estranged brothers Ben and Alex and the woman they are both attracted to, Sarah – must uneasily stand together to survive the attacks of paid assassins who are after the book’s MacGuffin, a truly killer app out of Silicon Valley.

Eisler, a former CIA agent, made a name for himself with a series of six excellent novels about a globetrotting Japanese-American hitman named John Rain. Sony Pictures has made the first of these, “Rain Fall,” into a mostly Japanese-language movie featuring Gary Oldman.

The Rain books were character-driven, with the focus as much on Rain’s tortured psyche as on his deadly handiwork. “Fault Line” is also character-driven, but Eisler shows each of the three main characters through the eyes of the other two, giving readers a 360-degree view of how a mix of healthy paranoia and needless suspicion complicates their already tense relationships.

Alex and Sarah are lawyers for the creator of some revolutionary new software. When the creator is found murdered, Alex turns to Ben, a black-ops commando, for help. Soon the chase is on, with the trio dodging murderous attacks and fighting among themselves in almost equally deadly fashion.

Amid the tradecraft details and family drama, Eisler lets his characters make the occasional political aside. “The left was naïve, thinking you could follow the niceties and still fight effectively against the kind of fanatics America was up against,” Ben muses. “And the right was hypocritical, thinking you could take off the gloves and still occupy the moral high ground.”

For readers on either side of that cynical line, “Fault Line” delivers its twists and thrills in a well-crafted literary package.