Japan's prime minister sags to dangerously low support levels in latest polls

TOKYO (AP) — Public support for Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who swept to power less than a year ago with approval ratings over 70 percent, has fallen so low that he is now in a danger zone from which few of his predecessors recovered.

Hatoyama's steep decline reflects growing questions over his ability to lead the nation amid a dispute with the United States over a U.S. military base and a high-profile money scandal involving the second-most powerful politician in his party.

A national poll released this week by the Yomiuri, Japan's top-selling newspaper, found the approval rate for Hatoyama's Cabinet plummeted to 24 percent in May, down 9 percentage points from the previous month. The Yomiuri survey showed the disapproval rate for Hatoyama's Cabinet rose to 67 percent in May from 56 percent in April, with 51 percent of respondents saying the prime minister lacked leadership.

A poll conducted by NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, found similar results.

The Yomiuri said voters are increasingly critical of Hatoyama's handling of the dispute over plans to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the southern island of Okinawa. Hatoyama's 51-percentage point fall since taking office last September represents the steepest decline in approval recorded by the Yomiuri since it began such polling in 1978.

Recent prime ministers whose Cabinet's approval rating has fallen into the 20-percent level have generally had to resign.

"He is in a very difficult spot," Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Tokyo's Nihon University, said Thursday. "If he doesn't quit, support levels will not go back up. But if he does, that will not solve any problems. There is basically nothing he can do right at this point."

The Yomiuri conducted the survey on May 7-9 through random telephone interviews. The paper said the survey had 1,125 responses. A poll of that size would normally have a 4 percentage point margin of error.

The plunge in support puts Hatoyama and his Democratic Party in an ominous position ahead of key elections for the upper house of parliament scheduled for July.

Prosecutors are reportedly hoping to question the party's previous leader, Ichiro Ozawa, for allegedly misreporting funds in a scandal that has tainted the Democrats' image as reformist. Ozawa is a central party figure and one of its co-founders.

Hatoyama, meanwhile, is struggling on the base relocation plan.

He has repeatedly pledged to resolve the issue by the end of this month — though he has recently been backing away from that — and 51 percent of those polled by the Yomiuri said he should step down if he does not meet the self-imposed deadline.

Okinawa hosts more than half the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan under a security pact. To ease Okinawa's burden, Japan and the U.S. agreed in 2006 to move the sprawling Futenma air field to a less crowded part of the island, and move 8,600 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

Hatoyama froze the 2006 deal amid fierce local opposition and has been searching for alternatives.

Many analysts believe that was a major political blunder.

"He reopened the very sensitive question of moving Marines off Okinawa that has now exploded in Okinawan domestic politics," said Michael Auslin, director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank. "He let his party spend months on unrealistic proposals. And he used up his good will with the Obama administration. In short, he mishandled nearly every aspect of this, and mostly for no reason at all."