June 8, 2010 / 5:22 AM / 8 years ago

NEWSMAKER-Can Japan's new leader Kan stay the course?

TOKYO, June 8 (Reuters) - As soon as Naoto Kan was picked to be Japan’s prime minister, “Yes We Kan” T-shirts went on sale on the Internet.

Voters who have now seen their fifth leader take office in just three years may, however, be wary of buying one without proof that he will stay the course.

Kan’s common-man origins and talent for survival could give him a better shot at political longevity than his predecessors, whose elite pedigrees helped them rise to the top with little need to develop skills in rough and tumble competition.

Kan, finance minister before taking on the top job, began his career as an activist and campaigned for a prominent feminist lawmaker before seeking a seat in parliament. He lost three times before winning a seat for a small, leftist party.

“Since I belonged to a small party, I had to do everything myself to make things move forward,” Kan told Democratic Party (DPJ) lawmakers before being voted in as their new leader last week following the resignation of unpopular Yukio Hatoyama.

Kan is also one of the few party leaders who did not get his start in the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which ruled Japan almost non-stop for more than half a century before being ousted in last year’s general election.

The LDP fractured in 1993 when it briefly lost power, spawning a string of opposition parties which coalesced in the DPJ in 1996 under the leadership of Kan and Hatoyama.

The son of a businessman with a passion for mahjong and an image as an ordinary guy, Kan may resonate with voters better than wealthy leaders like Hatoyama, who insisted he was unaware of receiving millions of yen in unreported funds from his heiress mother.

“He didn’t come from a big rich family. He entered politics as an ordinary person and in very small parties,” Democratic Party heavyweight Hajime Ishii told Reuters.

“Sometimes he explodes,” Ishii said, referring to Kan’s well-known short fuse. “But he is a man who fits an era of challenge to vested interests.”


Kan made a deep impression on voters when, as health minister in 1996, he battled bureaucrats to expose a scandal over HIV-tainted blood products and apologised to the victims.

Many have detected a recent change in his attitude towards bureaucrats, attributing his belief in the need to rein in Japan’s huge public debt at least partly to the tutelage of finance mandarins since he assumed the key portfolio in January.

“In a sense, he has been transformed into a fiscal reconstructionist and his ties with the ministry of finance may be helping. He’s not the bureaucrat-basher he used to be,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor at Sophia University.

“Some call that a sell-out, but as prime minister, bashing bureaucrats is not a good idea.”

Having seen Greece’s debt problem turn into a European crisis, Kan -- hardly an expert on economic matters -- became one of Japan’s most vocal cabinet members calling for the need to come up with a credible long-term fiscal reform plan.

Analysts say he has the political clout and skill to muscle through needed reforms. But Kan himself has been cautious of being branded a fiscal hawk and while a fiery debater, has a talent for nuanced remarks that make him hard to pin down.

A vocal critic of the central bank, the BOJ, when it was reluctant to ease monetary policy, Kan toned down his criticism after the central bank took several steps.

With the economy in relatively good shape, he is unlikely to put pressure on the bank soon for further easing, but might turn up the heat quickly if the economy takes a turn for the worse.

Policy content aside, Kan may turn out to be the kind of survivor Japan needs after a string of shortlived leaders.

Forced to step down as party leader in 2004 after confessing that he had failed to pay some contributions into the public pension system, Kan shaved his head, donned Buddhist monk garb and made a pilgrimage to temples to atone for his mistake.

Six years later, he finds himself at the pinnacle of Japanese politics. (Editing by Ron Popeski)

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