Naoto Kan To Become Japan's Prime Minister

08/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

TOKYO — Naoto Kan, the straight-talking populist named Japan's new prime minister, faces a host of daunting tasks, from reviving the nation's stagnant economy to cutting back its ballooning national debt.

But first he must survive an urgent, make-or-break test: Win back voters disgusted by the broken promises of his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, by next month's upper house elections.

Decisive and down-to-earth, Kan may have just what it takes to regain support for the battered Democratic Party of Japan, analysts say.

Unlike the blue-blooded Hatoyama, Kan hails from an ordinary family and got his political start in civic activism. He's known for speaking his mind and gained popularity in the 1990s for exposing a government cover-up of HIV-tainted blood products.

"He has a chance. He's a credible new leader. Nobody doubts his reformist credentials," said Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

"But there's no real honeymoon period," Nakano said. "Even though (the election) is his first test, it will be his make-or-break test."

The Democrats swept to power just nine months ago, trouncing the long-ruling conservatives amid high hopes for change and more government accountability. But public opinion quickly soured after Hatoyama got ensnared in a political funding scandal and reneged on a campaign promise to move a key U.S. Marine base off the southern island of Okinawa.

Kan, 63, Japan's sixth prime minister in four years, is keenly aware of the challenges ahead of him.

"Our first priority is to regain the trust of the people," he told party members Friday, when he was voted into office by the more powerful lower house of parliament, receiving 313 votes out of a possible 477.

He pledged to confront problems linking "money and politics." Finance minister under Hatoyama, Kan stressed the need to spur growth and tackle deflation in the world's second-largest economy, where falling prices and stubbornly high unemployment are dragging on a feeble recovery.

Kan also called ties with Washington the "cornerstone" of Japan's foreign policy, but stressed the importance of working for "the prosperity of the Asian region."

Otherwise, Kan offered few specifics. Given the troubles that Hatoyama got into for failing to deliver on his promises, Kan is likely to proceed with caution.

"Having seen Hatoyama up close, how he dug a hole for himself, Kan realizes that cheap words are what he should be avoiding," said Nakano.

In the past, Kan has said Japan needs to raise its consumption tax from the current 5 percent to reduce the bulging deficit. But Friday he was much more circumspect, saying only he would make an announcement at a later, appropriate time.

And rather than hurriedly announce a Cabinet, Kan said he would reveal the members early next week, after which the Cabinet will be appointed by Emperor Akihito.

Kan faces plenty of prickly problems, including executing a recent agreement between Tokyo and Washington to relocate U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma, to a less-crowded part of Okinawa. Hatoyama's failure to keep a pledge to move the airfield off the island led to his downfall.

Kan said Friday he would honor that accord, but faces intense opposition from island residents who want Futenma moved off Okinawa completely. Some analysts have questioned whether the plan can actually be carried out.

"This is an extremely tough issue that I must tackle firmly and patiently," Kan said.

The White House said President Barack Obama looked forward to working with Kan.

"Japan is an important friend and ally. Our partnership is crucial to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. The President is committed to maintaining excellent cooperation with the new Japanese government and will work closely together with Prime Minister Kan on bilateral, regional and global issues," National Security Council Spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement.

A politician with roots in civic activism who has become a fiscal disciplinarian, Kan defies easy categorization. Observers say his political views have changed and evolved over time, making it hard to predict what kind of policies he will pursue.

In the 1970s, Kan served as campaign chief for Fusae Ichikawa, a champion of the Japanese feminist movement who was elected to upper house.

Kan himself won a lower house seat in 1980 with the now-defunct Socialist Democratic Federation, and later was part of a coalition government led by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. In 1996, Kan joined Hatoyama and others to found what eventually became the DPJ.

As finance minister under Hatoyama, Kan spoke up for increased fiscal discipline, impressing some skeptics who had worried about his past preference for spending on social programs. He has also criticized the Bank of Japan for not doing enough to combat deflation.

Analysts and fellow lawmakers agree that his ordinary upbringing and direct communication style set him apart from the professorial Hatoyama, who was born into a wealthy, politically elite family.

"Kan brings passion to the post. He is known as 'Ira-Ira Kan,' the 'Irritable Kan' because he's got a temper. The guy cares about politics," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. "I think that the voters will respond to him."

Kan also clearly tried to put distance between himself and Ichiro Ozawa, the party's powerbroker and former No. 2 who is also embroiled in a funding scandal, urging him Thursday to "keep quiet for a while." Ozawa stepped down with Hatoyama on Wednesday.

Those two resignations already appear to have given the Democrats a lift in public opinion ahead of the elections, likely July 11.

A national telephone poll conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's biggest newspaper, showed 29 percent support for the DPJ, up 9 points from last weekend. It didn't provide a margin of error, but with 1,090 respondents, the margin of error for this survey would be plus or minus 4 percentage points.

A bad performance in the upper house elections, where half the seats are up for grabs, would not threaten the Democrats' grip on power because they command a large lower-house majority. But heavy losses would likely force the party to woo new coalition partners to ensure smoother passage of bills – and could cost Kan his job.

"I think he can change the tide," said Muneo Suzuki, a member of the DPJ-led coalition.

Many Tokyo residents appear to be taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"I'm a little uneasy after Hatoyama's government," said Yuki Tamura, 23, who works for a manufacturing company. "I voted for the Democrats last time, and depending on how Kan does, am willing to do so again."


Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi, Jay Alabaster, Yuri Kageyama and Tomoko A. Hosaka and contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS SUBS graf 23 to correct that Kan was part of LDP coalition government but not member of LDP, ADDS vote tally in graf 9 and that likely date of election is July 11 in graf 28. AP Video.)