Should Finance Minister Naoto Kan become Japan's next prime minister on Friday, as most observers predict, it won't be the first time he will have shouldered the responsibility for cleaning up after Yukio Hatoyama. Kan succeeded him as party chairman back in 2002, when Hatoyama resigned over talks he had held with the rival party. Now, Kan seems to be swooping in again in the wake of Hatoyama's sudden resignation, hoping to limit the damage from the outgoing prime minister's disastrous nine months in power. Then as now, Kan boasts more experience in government than his predecessor and a style that could hardly be more different. His hot temper and self-made expertise might be just what Japan needs if it hopes to keep a prime minister for a period of longer than a few months.
Japan urgently needs a strong leader. Less than a year after Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept away half a century of nearly unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September, their coalition today looks frayed and tired. Hatoyama got bogged down in a disagreement with the United States over where to relocate Futenma, a strategically important U.S. Marine air base on Okinawa. In late May, after months of painful public dithering, he finally signed on to a 2006 agreement hammered out by the previous LDP government -- which provoked a revolt in his governing coalition and deep shock among an unprepared public. With his party in disarray and an approval rating headed for the single digits, Hatoyama resigned Wednesday, along with the DPJ's powerful party secretary, Ichiro Ozawa.
Enter Kan. He is a figure already well known to investors and analysts as the fiscal conservative who has spent the last six months trying to relieve Japan's stifling debt burden (roughly 200 percent of GDP) and reinvigorate a stagnant economy. While he has actively called for Japan to follow the path of fiscal responsibility, and pointed ominously to Greece as a direction Japan might follow if his reforms are not implemented, his short time as finance minister has not seen considerable progress in this direction.
Kan is also known as a pacifist in line with Japan's old left tradition. While serving in the Japanese legislature, he advocated a greater role for the Japanese military under the banner of the United Nations and opposed sending the country's troops to Iraq, as the United States has hoped Japan would. After meeting with Japan's then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2003, he commented, "The decision to send troops to Iraq is based on a fundamental miscalculation." Still, unlike Hatoyama, Kan is unlikely to fumble matters of foreign policy and relations with the country's most important ally, having watched and learned from the Futenma debacle.
Kan's upbringing could be a key asset. Hatoyama's entry into politics was lubricated by family connections (his father was also prime minister). Kan, on the other hand, is a rarity for Japanese politicians -- a self-made man. His path to power was neither direct nor easy. An aspiring scientist in his youth, Kan majored in physics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and opened his own patent office in 1974. He made his political debut shortly thereafter as a civic activist and entered the Japanese parliament in 1980 as a member of the lower house. It was after exposing a massive scandal, however, that Kan truly burst onto the national scene in the 1990s, as health minister in the LDP government. HIV-tainted blood was entering the country's blood supply, and the government had been covering it up. Kan exposed the details to public acclaim.
But Kan soon faced his own series of scandals. In 1998, he resigned his post after his affair with a television newscaster went public and he simultaneously admitted that he had failed to pay into the national pension fund. Just five years later, Kan was forced to resign from his leadership of the DPJ over another failure to pay. This time, Kan made formal penance: He shaved his head, put on a Buddhist monk's robes, and traveled to the traditional pilgrimage destination of Shikoku island and its 88 temples. It worked. Japan's comeback kid, he remained a senior figure inside the DPJ and served as deputy prime minister and finance minister in the Hatoyama cabinet.