Japan finance minister Naoto Kan: sharp-tongued and battle-ready

Newly appointed Japan finance minister Naoto Kan faces the tough task of stimulating a struggling economy while keeping public debt under control. His role as deputy prime minister was to wrench policy powers away from bureaucrats.

Yuriko Nakao/Reuters
Japan's new Finance Minister Naoto Kan (c.) leaves his first news conference, at the Finance Ministry in Tokyo on Thursday.

The significance of Naoto Kan’s appointment as Japan’s new finance minister lies as much in his reputation as a battler against the country’s powerful bureaucrats as in his yet untested financial expertise.

Mr. Kan, the sharp-tongued deputy prime minister, took over Wednesday night from Hirohisa Fujii, who resigned after being hospitalized for exhaustion in the wake of a tough few weeks drawing up a record $1 trillion budget.

Kan, one of the few members of the new Democratic Party (DPJ) government with any cabinet experience, takes up his job at a delicate moment for Japan’s struggling economy. He faces the difficult task of stimulating the economy so as to pull it out of recession while keeping Japan’s massive public debt under control.

Kan has little financial or economic policymaking experience. His role in the cabinet since Yukio Hatoyama led the DPJ to victory in last August’s elections has been to wrench policy-setting powers away from ministry bureaucrats and give them to elected officials.

Kan made name in exposing health scandal

That was a central plank in Mr. Hatoyama’s campaign platform. Kan made his name in Japanese politics over a decade ago as health minister, when he forced officials to release documents revealing that they had allowed over 1,000 hemophiliacs to receive HIV-tainted blood transfusions.

“If I make meaningful changes at the [Finance] Ministry ,it would be a model for changing Kasumigaseki [the heart of Japan’s bureaucracy] as a whole,” Kan told reporters Thursday.

Kan made waves on his first day on the job by stating at his first press conference that he favored a weaker yen – comments that caused the dollar to rise further against the Japanese currency.

He has also spoken forcefully in recent months in favor of stimulating the economy so as to avoid a double-dip recession. That contrasts with his predecessor, Mr. Fujii, who was known for his preference for fiscal restraint.

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