The revolving door to the Japanese prime minister’s residence is likely to spin again before the end of this month as Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan bows out to make way for the country’s sixth new leader in five years. The center-left prime minister is widely expected to quit within about a week, almost half a year since the devastating March 11 quake and tsunami sorely tested his leadership and turned him into Japan’s top anti-nuclear crusader.
The frontrunner to take his post is Japanese Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, a less divisive figure who has even floated the idea of a grand coalition with the conservative opposition to tackle Japan’s problems.
Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Banri Kaeda and former transport minister Sumio Mabuchi have also thrown their hats into the ring, while others, including former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, are weighing their options.
Whoever takes the job faces urgent challenges, chiefly the need to rebuild from Japan’s worst post-war disaster while keeping in check a public debt mountain that is already twice the size of the economy.
“The task of overcoming the ongoing crisis for the nation requires strong leadership from politicians,” the Yomiuri Shimbun said in an editorial. “After Kan steps down, the ruling and opposition parties must first and foremost join hands to establish a strong framework for promoting reconstruction from the disaster.”
Given the economic woes now hitting the US and Europe, the new prime minister will be at pains to keep Japan’s budding post-quake recovery afloat, despite a soaring yen that threatens the nation’s export giants.
Then there is the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant crisis, which has driven tens of thousands from their homes and and battered the farm, fisheries and tourism sectors.
Japan’s triple disaster — which claimed more than 20,000 lives, wiped out entire towns and sparked the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl — also had a huge impact on Japan’s political landscape.
The seismic disaster struck on the watch of Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which was brought to power two years ago in a landslide election that ended half a century of almost unbroken conservative rule.
In the days before March 11, Kan’s approval ratings, hurt by his talk of tax hikes and by party funding scandals, had slipped below 20 percent, about the level where his predecessor bowed out less than a year earlier.
The quake arguably gave Kan another lease of life by forcing a short-lived political truce that, to the dismay of voters, gave way to renewed bickering and infighting within about a month.
Charges that Kan had bungled the response to the calamity quickly grew louder, even from within DPJ ranks, forcing a no-confidence vote in June that Kan only survived by promising to step down soon.
In the lame-duck period that followed, Kan came to strongly embrace an anti-nuclear cause that has defined his administration and seen him throw out the rule book of Japan’s consensus-based political system.
Kan has advocated a nuclear-free future for Japan and gone to war with the power companies, bureaucrats and politicians who make up what has been called Japan’s “nuclear village,” making more enemies along the way.
The message tapped into popular sentiment, with some polls saying 70 percent of Japanese want to phase out nuclear power, but ran into strong opposition from Japan’s business groups and the country’s powerful bureaucracy.