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.

Itsuo Inouye/AP
Former Finance Minister Naoto Kan cheers lawmakers of his Democratic Party of Japan after being elected as the country's new prime minister in Tokyo Friday.

Japan’s new prime minister, Naoto Kan, launched his premiership last week with a promise to “rebuild” his country and restore his party’s fortunes after a week of humiliation.

The former finance minister beat his rival, Shinji Tarutoko, in a June 4 vote among members of parliament belonging to the ruling Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ], just two days after Yukio Hatoyama resigned for his woeful handling of the relocation of a US airbase in Okinawa.

Mr. Kan, Japan’s sixth prime minister in four years, is the first leader in 14 years not to hail from a political dynasty. An outspoken politician, he is targeting issues from Japan’s public debt – the highest in the industrialized world – to regaining public trust in the tarnished political class to spurring growth in a fast-graying society.

Reassuring the US

Kan has also moved quickly to reassure the United States that it remained the “cornerstone” of Japan’s diplomacy and that he will stand by the recent agreement to relocate Futenma Marine base within the island of Okinawa. But he added that he would also strive to realize his predecessor’s grand vision of an East Asian community modeled on the European Union.

Asia is the region leading global growth ... we can have relations with China, India, Vietnam and other developing countries in which we complement each other in technology and economic structuring,” he said.

Kan’s election will probably stem the losses the DPJ could have expected in upcoming July polls had Hatoyama stayed in office, says Yasunori Sone, a professor of political science at Keio University in Tokyo.

“Hatoyama’s failure was not just about Futenma, which wasn’t even mentioned in the DPJ manifesto, but about his inability to implement other policies,” he says. “Kan’s best option for now is to apologize for past mistakes, be honest about what the government can financially afford to do, and rebuild his party’s decisionmaking structure.”

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.

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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