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Naoto Kan is the new leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and favorite to become Japan’s next Prime Minister after defeating challenger Shinji Tarutoko in a leadership ballot, two days after the resignation of former leader Yukio Hatoyama.
Mr. Kan, 63, previously served as Deputy Leader and Finance Minister under Mr. Hatoyama. He won the leadership ballot by a margin of 291 – 129 over the 50 year-old Mr. Tarutoko, chairman of the Lower House Environment Committee, who promoted himself as being the fresh face that Japanese politics needed.
Mr. Kan headed the DPJ in 1999 and again between 2002 and 2004. If approved, he will become Japan’s 94th Prime Minister.
Mr. Hatoyama stepped down less than a year after being elected Japan’s leader. He resigned following increasing protests by residents on the island of Okinawa over the failure to keep an electoral campaign promise to remove a U.S. Marine base from the island.
The controversial issue cost the DPJ the support of one of its junior coalition partners, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which withdrew support for the government after Mr. Hatoyama expelled the leader of the SDP and Consumer Affairs Minister, Mizuko Fukushima, for refusing to support a relocation of the Futenma Marine Corps Air Base to a remote part of northern Okinawa. More than half of the 47,000 American troops based in Japan are on the island.
Speaking to Foreign Policy Journal, Associate Professor of Japanese Studies Carolyn Stevens, from the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, says that while a financial scandal over improper reporting of campaign donations, an unsuccessful attempt to halt the deflation of the economy and failure to reduce transport costs hurt Mr. Hatoyama’s chances of political survival, it was the Okinawa issue that proved to be fatal.
“Okinawa is so fraught because of its history: it is the only part of Japan that experienced a land invasion during the Second World War, and there continues to be great controversy as to what really happened during and right after the Battle of Okinawa,” Associate Professor Stevens said. “Okinawans for all these reasons are seen to be one of the groups who have sacrificed the most – and are still suffering — because of the war.”
Associate Professor Stevens said that China’s rise as an economic power, and the instability between North and South Korea, make Japan nervous about cutting ties with the U.S.
Despite the issue that eventually caused Mr. Hatoyama’s political demise, Associate Professor Stevens said that he broke new ground. Mr. Hatoyama, she said, should be remembered as the first prime minister who at least tried to grapple with the Okinawa problem. “His resignation has highlighted the will of the people,” she said.
An election in the Upper House of the Diet, the Japanese Parliament, is set for July.