• Professor Alisa Gaunder and former Southwestern students Tyson Berger, Chris Bailey, Lissa Terrel, Grace Webster and Sarah...
    Professor Alisa Gaunder and former Southwestern students Tyson Berger, Chris Bailey, Lissa Terrel, Grace Webster and Sarah Morris met with Yukio Hatoyama, who is now the prime minister of Japan, during a 2005 trip to Japan.

When Alisa Gaunder and five of her students from Southwestern met with a politician named Yukio Hatoyama during a 2005 research trip to Japan, they had no idea they were meeting with the country’s future leader.

“He wasn’t even leader of his party at the time,” Gaunder said.

But a corruption scandal in Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan led to the resignation of the party leader and Hatoyama reassumed the position, which he had held previously. He was named prime minister of Japan Sept. 16 after his party defeated the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in an Aug. 30 election. The Liberal Democratic Party has governed Japan for all but 11 months since 1955.

“Japan has been a democracy since the end of World War II, but this is really the first time the people have voted a government out,” Gaunder said.

Gaunder, who is an associate professor of political science, is one of only a handful of academics in the United States who study political leadership in the Japanese Diet. In 2005, she took five of her students from Southwestern to Japan to interview various political leaders on an ASIANetwork Freeman Foundation Grant.

Hatoyama was among the leaders they interviewed. Gaunder set up the interview because one of the students, Tyson Berger, was writing a research paper on opposition party politics.

Gaunder said the group interviewed Hatoyama for about a half an hour in his Toyko office located near the Diet Building, which is the home of the Japanese parliament.

“At the time the Democratic Party did not seem poised to take over the government in the near future but we knew it was a long-term possibility,” Gaunder said. 

She said she knew this after the group asked Hatoyama their first question: “What personal attributes does a good leader need to have in Japan?”

“His answer was that you need more than just personal attributes, you need to be motivated,” Gaunder said. “He said his goal was to take over the government.”

Nevertheless, Gaunder said she was surprised by the results of the recent election, in which the DPJ won 308 of 480 seats in one of the houses of Parliament.

“I didn’t expect it to be such a landslide,” Gaunder said. “Even people in Japan were surprised.”

Gaunder has been discussing the election and what it means with students in her

Contemporary Japanese Politics class this semester. She said several changes may be likely in Japan under the leadership of the DPJ, especially in the area of domestic policy.

“Their campaign slogan was that they would improve the daily lives of ordinary people,” Gaunder said.

In foreign policy, Gaunder said she expects that Hatoyama and his party will try to improve its bilateral relationships with other countries in Asia such as China, South Korea and Taiwan.   “They won’t ignore the United States, but they will try to establish leadership and presence in the region,” she said.  

Gaunder said the situation Hatoyama is facing in Japan is very similar to the one that Barack Obama faced when he became president of the United States in January. “He is coming into office at a difficult time having promised a lot,” she said.  

Gaunder said Hatoyama impressed her as being “very intellectual and very policy-oriented” when they met. She noted that he comes from a political family and his grandfather actually helped found the country’s Liberal Democratic Party.

In the coming years, Gaunder will continue to focus her research on the election of women in Japan. “The DPJ elected a record number of women, but it remains to be seen what role they will play in policy making,” she said.

Gaunder is chair of the Political Science Department at Southwestern and also directs the university’s International Studies Program. She has been a member of the Southwestern faculty since 2002.