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Naoto Kan, Japan's new Prime Minister: A Profile

Date Posted: 2010-06-09

He doesn’t come from an aristocratic background like his predecessors, being raised in a working class family, but Naoto Kan is being described by political analysts as fully capable of getting a grasp on Japan’s problems and solving them.

To some, though, Kan is a pragmatist who has his work cut out for him while trying to back away from comments made earlier in his career. “Our first priority is to regain the trust of the people,” he’s told leaders of his Democratic Party of Japan since being chosen Prime Minister.

The 63-year-old Kan, Japan’s sixth prime minister in four years, was born in Ube City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, as the son of a senior businessman. By comparison, recent prime ministers have been sons or grandsons of previous prime ministers or other national leaders. “I grew up in a typical Japanese salaryman’s family,” he says.

His first endeavors were running a patent office in 1974, then moving into politics. He lost his first bid for election in 1976 before being elected to the lower house in 1980 as a member of the Socialist Democratic Federation.

He moved onto the national stage in 1996, when he exposed a scandal involving spread of HIV-contaminated blood. Allegations of an affair with a television newscaster in 1998 –vehemently denied by both Kan and the woman, Yuuko Tonomoto—nearly derailed his career. He bounced back in the 2003 elections when he and the Democratic Party of Japan were vying against the Liberal Democratic Party, and he became the competitor to then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. A year later he was plagued by his own scandal, accused of unpaid annuities, and again forced to resign his leadership position. He atoned for the scandal by making the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

Upon formation of the Democratic Party of Japan in 1996, Kan co-chaired the new party with Yukio Hatoyama.

Kan’s past words may come back to haunt him as he tries to rebuild relations with the United States. He calls Japan’s ties with Washington the “cornerstone” of his country’s foreign policy, but also believes it is important to work for “the prosperity of the Asian region. All well and good, but past statements aren’t easy to forget. In 2001 he said “a pullout of the Marines” wouldn’t have a major impact on American East Asian strategy, and suggested “we should perhaps formally propose through diplomatic channels that they return to U.S. territory.” Two years later he staked a position against the U.S. bases in Japan, saying “security in the Far East can be maintained without U.S. bases in Okinawa and the Marines stationed there. We are eyeing having them moved out of Japan.”

He’s also been an outspoken opponent of the U.S. war in Iraq, saying I cannot allow mass murder simply because Iraq did not fully comply with UN resolutions in the past.” His posturing in the early 2000’s led to open statements that “our ties with the United States are vital, but our relations with Asian countries are equally important. While Finance Minister, he never addressed the Futenma issue. Today, Kan is assuring Japan he intends to honor the agreement made last month by then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to keep Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Okinawa, moving it to a more sparsely populated area.

With that backdrop, his Tuesday evening news conference declaration of support for the Futenma move, while promising to try and reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting American troops and bases, raised eyebrows. The timelines are tight, and he must repair the torn relationship with the U.S.

Kan faces serious economic issues. He’s been known to support a weaker yen during his tenure as Finance Minister in Hatoyama’s administration. He’ll make his first appearance on the world stage at the Group of Eight (G-8) and G-20 summits late this month. He must put together this month a new strategy for growth in Japan that includes reform and a new fiscal management strategy. As Finance Minister, Kan had already begun laying the foundation for these policies.

Power politics is the potential pitfall for the new Prime Minister. In choosing Yoshito Senoku as his Chief Cabinet Secretary and Yukio Edano as DPJ Secretary-General, he’s taken steps to surround himself with people who’ll be a barrier to the once-powerful Ichiro Ozawa, who wanted to revamp laws for privatizing Japan postal services and other major issues.

Kan is married and has two sons, and uses his spare time to play Go. He is an avid scuba diver.

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