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Populist Naoto Kan promises to 'rebuild' Japan as new PM

The first PM in more than a decade not to hail from a political dynasty, the populist Naoto Kan hopes to boost his party's standing ahead of July elections.

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Kan sought to reassure voters he would breathe life into the political revolution they set in motion last August, when the DPJ bested its long-ruling rival, the Liberal Democratic Party [LDP], in a landslide.

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But, says Mr. Sone, “a change in leadership is not enough for a full recovery; it’s not enough for the Japanese people.”

Analysts expect a boost for the DPJ from Kan’s election, but only coming weeks will tell if voters warm to an “ordinary” man whose love for politics began as a student in the great environmental campaigns of the 1970s.

If his multiparty background suggests a certain past flirtatiousness, observers say his stubbornness could be his most damaging personality trait. It is not for nothing that he has earned the nickname “Kan the Irritable.”

But his dogged approach served him well in 1996, when, as health minister in an LDP-led coalition, he exposed an attempted bureaucratic coverup of the use of HIV-infected blood products among hemophiliacs.

Clean break with hereditary positions

And in an age when hereditary politicians have dominated high office, Kan represents a clean break. After graduating from Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1970, he continued his activism while running a patent office, before winning a lower house seat in 1980 with the now-disbanded Socialist Democratic Federation.

His claims to represent the man and woman on the Tokyo omnibus are not mere bluster. “I grew up in a typical Japanese salaryman’s family,” says Kan. Married with two sons, Kan is a keen scuba diver, and will need to draw on all the strategic acumen he has acquired through his love of the Japanese board game Go.

“If I can take on a major role starting from such an ordinary background, that would be a very positive thing for Japanese politics,” he said.

But Kan’s populism may have to take a back seat to cold realism when he confronts Japan’s huge public spending commitments. He has talked with more enthusiasm than his Democrat colleagues about the need to raise the consumption tax, a measure that is unlikely to go down well with voters.

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