The race to lead Japan's main opposition was yesterday down to a veteran liberal and a young security expert as the party struggled to regroup after a massive loss to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Naoto Kan, a 58-year-old former activist in the 1960s, said he would try for the third time to take the helm of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which lost a third of its seats in Sunday's election.
"By renewing the DPJ as one of two major parties in Japan, we must build it up as a party that can take power," Kan told a press conference yesterday as he announced his bid to run in tomorrow's leadership election.
Kan's main challenger will be Seiji Maehara, a 43-year-old dubbed the "security geek" for his knowledge of national security and North Korea. He has been outspoken in criticizing Koizumi for deteriorating relations with China.
Maehara is considered as to the right of Kan and has blamed the DPJ's close links to organized labor for the defeat in the election, in which Koizumi campaigned on economic reforms. Announcing his own candidacy on Thursday, Maehara said he would restructure the party into "an entity that can fight battles."
"The rebirth of the DPJ is the only way to restore democracy in Japan," Maehara said.
The DPJ was led in the election by Katsuya Okada, a dour former civil servant who quit after the loss. Koizumi's coalition secured a majority of more than two-thirds, enough to push any bill through parliament save for a constitutional amendment.
The DPJ was formed in 1998 as a motley collection of former conservatives from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and ex-Socialists.
Ichiro Ozawa, a favorite in the DPJ's conservative wing, yesterday turned down supporters' calls to run for the leadership, noting he was vice president of the party during the election.
"I felt I should refrain from running considering that I am the vice president of the party and was partly to blame for the election loss," Ozawa said.
Kan, former health minister, became hugely popular in 1996 for exposing a scandal of HIV-contaminated blood.