News / Asia

Reformist Kan is Japan's New PM

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Japan is welcoming two-time cabinet minister Naoto Kan as its fifth prime minister in four years. The lower house of Parliament, controlled by the Democratic Party of Japan, elected the newly installed party leader to succeed the unpopular Yukio Hatoyama, whose government was dissolved earlier in the day.

Japan quickly scrambled to put a new government into place following the collapse of the Hatoyama cabinet, which lasted less than nine months.

Mr. Kan, the incumbent finance minister, moved to the top spot as the Democratic Party of Japan's candidate.

The Lower House of Parliament announced that Mr. Kan received 313 votes compared to his closest challenger, Sadakazu Tanigaki, the president of the opposition Liberal Democrats, who received 116 ballots.

The new prime minister, before the parliamentary voting, briefly addressed his fellow party lawmakers after they selected him as the DPJ's president.  

Mr. Kan says with the help of all of the DPJ lawmakers he wants to put together firm policies to rebuild Japan ahead of next month's upper house election.

That will be the first big challenge for the 63-year-old new leader. Most analysts are predicting a resounding rebuke from the electorate that would see the Democrats lose control of the less powerful chamber.

Mr. Kan will also have to try to repair Japan's diplomatic standing, especially the relationship with its closest ally, the United States. He will make his debut on the world stage at an important leaders' summit in Canada in four weeks.

Mr. Hatoyama's ambiguity concerning the future of U.S. military bases on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa is generally blamed for his downfall.

During his political ascent, Mr. Kan, a reformer in many areas, has been cryptic about his foreign policy views, including the long-standing defense pact with Washington. He has spoken of a more balanced defense relationship. Analysts predict that as another likely short-time prime minister Mr. Kan may try to avoid getting too involved in the Okinawa base issue, which bedeviled his predecessor.

Mr. Kan says, however, he will stick to most of the policy initiatives pursued by his predecessor, including the formation of an East Asian community, along the lines of the European Union.

Mr. Kan, a popular figure for taking on bureaucrats during a stint as health minister in the mid-1990's, is a break from the past. His four short-term predecessors all came from family dynasties rooted in the  Liberal Democratic Party, which as the moderate-to-conservative political force, governed Japan for nearly all of post-Second World War era.  

The new prime minister, characterized as a short-tempered populist, has more humble roots as the son of a factory manager. A physics student in college, Mr. Kan became a civic activist, stressing environmental and feminist causes. His political career was launched when he won a parliamentary seat as a member of a small opposition party on his fourth attempt.

As is the case with many prominent Japanese politicians, Mr. Kan has recovered from scandals, including those about his personal finances and one involving an extra-marital relationship.

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