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Japanese Prime Minister Faces Big National Challenges

Prime Minister Naoto Kan remains in office following a political challenge to his leadership Tuesday. We have more on the president of Japan's ruling Democratic Party as experts on Japan discussed the development in Washington.

Mr. Kan defeated challenger Ichiro Ozawa, a veteran power-broker with a 40-year political career. Mr. Kan won 721 votes, compared with Ozawa's 491 ballots, a much wider gap than was predicted. Bruce Klinger is a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington specializing in Northeast Asia. He says the outcome was actually very close.

"I think the elections are good for Japan and the U.S. and the alliance," said Bruce Klinger. "But it really could have easily gone the other way. If everyone followed the headlines of the last couple of days, you could see Kan ahead, Ozawa ahead and too close to call. So it really did come down to the wire. And whether it was a shift of some of the votes at the last minute or whether it was just the inherent error of polling results, I think is not really clear."

Kent Calder is the Director of the Japan Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International studies in Baltimore. He says while the challenge to the Prime Minister may have been close, he says the opposition did not seem to mount a serious campaign.

"If we really saw some tremendously articulate voices and strong leaders out of the opposition or any of the parties out of power, it would seem to me that might help to catalyze a more rapid transformation," said Kent Calder. "But the opposition itself I do not think is not presenting a powerful case for why there should be a transformation."

Speaking immediately following his reelection, Mr. Kan appealed for unity. The Japanese leader has been in office for just three months. Ichiro Ozawa criticized him for failing to boost Japan's slowing economy. And Mr. Calder says that is just one of several major issues Mr. Kan faces.

"There are big problems looming," he said. "The financial system, I think. There are huge levels of debt. [And] the geo-political changes in the region. Although I do not think those themselves, unless there is a crisis, would necessarily spur change. There is a tremendous need for leadership."

An issue that received much attention but does not rise to the importance of Japan's other pressing concerns is the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. Mr. Kan's Democratic Party has challenged a U.S. troop relocation plan. But James Auer, the Director of the Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation at Vanderbilt University, says it is not likely the issue will result in any major developments because residents there support the U.S. base.

"They are the most patriotic people I have ever met in support of the security treaty in Japan or in the United States," said James Auer. "They are scared stiff that if we left that the Chinese would be in there quite soon. So this is an issue that I think the Kan government or whatever government succeeds the Kan government has to deal with."

Mr. Kan's victory means Japan will be spared another change in leadership. Bruce Klinger of the Heritage Foundation says a big challenge for Prime Minister Kan will be to keep Japan ahead of other nations in Asia and around the world.

"It is good that we did not have three prime ministers in three months," he said. "But Japan is often worried about Japan passing [other nations getting ahead]. And actually it should. In the last month, China has passed Japan as the world's second largest economy. For decades, Tokyo has been seen as punching below its weight. And will continue to do so in the future because there seems little hope for fixing the stagnant economy or producing an effective political leadership or reversing the country's declining influence."

Mr. Kan promised to create jobs and cut what he said is wasteful government spending. Ichiro Ozawa had called for a government stimulus that he said would give more money directly to Japanese consumers.

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    Jim Stevenson

    For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.