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Japanese prime minister reelected leader of ruling party, will remain in office

Naoto Kan, Japan's prime minister and leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), right, stands as Ichiro Ozawa, former secretary general of the DPJ, sits before the start of the party's election in Tokyo, Japan. Kan defeated a leadership challenge from party rival Ozawa, who opposed his policy of keeping government spending in check to help rein in the world's largest public debt.
Naoto Kan, Japan's prime minister and leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), right, stands as Ichiro Ozawa, former secretary general of the DPJ, sits before the start of the party's election in Tokyo, Japan. Kan defeated a leadership challenge from party rival Ozawa, who opposed his policy of keeping government spending in check to help rein in the world's largest public debt. ((Tomohiro Ohsumi))
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 3:05 PM

SEOUL - Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was reelected president of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan on Tuesday, staving off a challenge from party colleague Ichiro Ozawa and earning the right, and the burden, to keep a job in which the challenges will only continue.

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Kan's defeat of Ozawa in the party election prevented further immediate leadership change in a country where many prime ministers have measured their tenures in months, not years. It also allows Kan to focus on the problems - a lethargic economy, massive debt and the heavy cost of supporting a graying population - that have bedeviled his predecessors and contributed to nationwide angst.

Kan emerged from the election with reinvigorated support, winning 721 votes to Ozawa's 491 - a wider margin than expected. Still, he and the DPJ find themselves in a difficult position, facing the possibility that personal rifts and policy differences exposed during the campaign could fracture the party.

The final tally belied the drama of the two-week campaign between Ozawa and Kan, who are political opposites. Many Japanese think of Ozawa, 68, in terms of an old-school coziness with corporate money and public-works projects. Known as the "shadow shogun," Ozawa wielded influence behind the scenes, recently earning support from DPJ lawmakers even as the public favored Kan four to one. Ozawa, sensing a final shot at his dream job, chose to battle Kan even as he faced a possible indictment for his role in a fundraising scandal.

Kan appealed to more pragmatic voters. He says he will spend less government money than Ozawa, and he is considered more likely to raise the consumption tax. Unlike Ozawa, he will stick with a current bilateral agreement on the relocation of a controversial U.S. Marine base on Okinawa - a relief to the Obama administration.

Also unlike his rival, who favored intervention with the foreign currency markets, Kan is expected to take a guarded approach, even as Japan's export-reliant economy struggles with the effects of a strong yen.

After Kan's victory, the yen rose to a 15-year high of 83.09 against the dollar. It then traded back to 83.30.

"While Japanese politics will not stabilize, [Kan] is a politician who prefers stability," political analyst Minoru Morita said. "Japanese people are just fed up with elections and politics. . . . And in that sense, Ozawa not elected means this competition for power will die down, and people are relieved about that."

As Kan prepares to begin his fourth month on the job, his tenure has been marked more by frustration than legislation - and some analysts doubt that will change. Kan gained power in early June, following the resignations of hapless Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his scandal-tainted adviser, Ozawa. But his honeymoon ended within weeks, as he proposed a consumption tax increase, lost majority public support and oversaw the DPJ defeat in July in upper-house elections. Only a year after sweeping into power and promising a new style of government, the party now faces a deadlocked parliament.

"If people trust the Democratic Party, they can understand policy proposals even if they are tough," Kan said Tuesday. "We can overcome the deadlock only when we can get the public to trust this party."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo contributed to this report.



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