TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan survived a no-confidence vote Thursday, but only after saying he will step down once this country further recovers from its post-disaster crisis.
Although Kan’s concession came with no clear timetable, it prevented an immediate fracture in Japan’s ruling party, where a powerful faction had been pressing for Kan’s resignation. About three hours after Kan’s announcement, the no-confidence motion was defeated 293 to 152 in the 480-member lower house of parliament. The remaining members abstained.
Kan, 64, expressed his willingness to step down during a meeting of fellow party members at which he emphasized his sense of responsibility to lead the post-disaster reconstruction effort. But once that is settled, Kan said, “I will pass on my responsibility to younger generations.”
Speaking later on Thursday to reporters, Kan hinted that he’d like to remain in office at least six more months — essentially until the end of the nuclear crisis. But differences emerged within the party about a timetable, with former prime minister YukioHatoyama saying that Kan could resign this month.
The latest upheaval — and the days of bickering that preceded it — further discredited a Japanese political system that cycles through leaders about once a year and has failed to spur public confidence in the aftermath of the March 11 double disaster and nuclear emergency. The pending leadership change also raises fresh questions about Kan’s ability to push for the key spending measures and legislation that Japan will need to fund and promote the recovery of its northeastern coastline.
In the aftermath of Japan’s greatest crisis since World War II, Kan drew criticism, particularly from opposition parties, for his slow disaster relief response and his handling of a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. On Wednesday, three opposition parties filed the no-confidence measure against Kan; had it passed, he would have been forced to resign or dissolve parliament, triggering an election.
The greatest pressure on Kan, though, came from within his own Democratic Party of Japan — a left-leaning party he helped to found. Several of the DPJ’s most prominent members, including power broker Ichiro Ozawa and Hatoyama, have turned into Kan’s top critics.
Whoever becomes Japan’s next prime minister must deal with a growing set of problems: a soaring debt, an economy in perma-deflation, and a northeastern region where tens of thousands have lost their jobs and homes. Under Kan, Japan has yet to pass legislation authorizing the new bonds to fund a budget for the next fiscal year. And it hasn’t resolved the controversy over how to pay for the disaster reconstruction, which will require a series of special budgets.
One Kan aide indicated that the prime minister will remain in office long enough to take a planned September trip to Washington. Kan could also tie his resignation to longer-term goals — such as the cold shutdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant, a resolution that won’t come until January, at the earliest.
“The nuclear crisis is ongoing,” Kan said, “and I will make my utmost efforts to end the crisis and move forward with post-quake reconstruction works.”
Either way, Kan, who took office June 8, figures to reach his one-year anniversary — something his four predecessors failed to do. During the past two decades, only the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi lasted for more than three years.
Kan’s announcement Thursday spurred speculation about the next leader. Kan’s deputy, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano — a faithful character who has given twice-a-day press conferences the past few months — figures to draw support. Seiji Maehara, a former foreign minister, and Goshi Hosono, director of Japan’s nuclear crisis task force, could also emerge as candidates. But largely, the sentiment against Kan during the past weeks came without consensus about a replacement.
“A good leader is nonexistent,” said Minoru Morita, an independent political analyst.
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.