Naoto Kan becomes new Japanese prime minister

Japan's ruling party has elected former finance minister Naoto Kan as its new leader, paving the way for him to become the next prime minister. As expected, Kan won the presidency of the Democratic Party of Japan.
By Chico Harlan
Friday, June 4, 2010; 6:23 AM

TOKYO -- Hours before he became Japan's latest prime minister, Naoto Kan received a memo from his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, that offered some advice that Hatoyama himself couldn't follow.

"Please take care of Japan-U.S., Japan-China and Japan-South Korean relations," wrote Hatoyama, who never managed in his short stint as premier to balance the needs of his own citizens and his closest ally.

Now Kan, Japan's fifth leader in four years, will inherit the problems that those before him struggled to solve -- a nagging debt, a history of fiscal scandals and lingering questions about the fate of a U.S. Marine base on Okinawa.

The Democratic Party of Japan overwhelmingly elected Kan, the country's finance minister, as its leader on Friday morning. Because the DPJ holds a majority in parliament, the vote all but secured Kan's position as the next prime minister. He formally took the post hours later after a parliament vote.

Analysts in Japan said Kan would have to act quickly. He must select a new cabinet. Within weeks, ahead of a critical July election, he needs to stabilize his reeling party. And during the next months, he must articulate his position on the long-standing dispute over the Marines' Futenma air base -- an issue that has dominated Japanese politics and U.S.-Japan relations for months.

In a speech to party members Friday, Kan said he will emphasize a "Japan-U.S. relationship at its core while contributing for forward development in Asia."

But Kan later added, in a press conference, that he still hopes to lessen the burden on Okinawans who oppose keeping the Marine airbase on the island.

"The [current] agreement is that between the countries," Kan said. "That agreement was reached under Mr. Hatoyama representing DPJ, so it will be the base" of his policy on Futenma. "In addition we have stated in the agreement as well that we emphasize the lessening of the burden on Okinawa. And that needs to be dealt with squarely."

Kan draws on a background that contrasts with those of other recent Japanese prime ministers. He has a humble background and a history as an outspoken populist. He is the first premier since 1996 whose family didn't make politics part of the family trade.

In the mid-1990s, he rose to prominence when, as health minister, he conducted a bold investigation that revealed how his own ministry had promoted the use of HIV-tainted blood for transfusions.

Recently, he broke from Hatoyama to call for Japan to explore a consumption-tax increase as protection against its debt.

"Kan is Mr. Clean. Kan is the citizen-activist -- he's come to politics in that route," Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a telephone interview.

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