New Prime Minister Naoto Kan never hid his ambition to one day take up the post and empower ordinary citizens by ousting the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
His long-held goal finally came true Friday, but in a way he probably never imagined while serving for three decades in the opposition ranks. Now his first mission is to guide his scandal-tainted Democratic Party of Japan to victory in the Upper Election in July.
“The first thing I need to do is gain the trust of the people, recover (the reputation of) the party,” Kan said Friday in a speech before the vote to choose the new DPJ president.
“I’d like all of you to participate” in party management, he said.
Kan started his political career in 1974, helping elect the late Fusae Ichikawa, a noted activist for women’s political rights. Ever since, Kan’s top policy pledge has been to shift power from bureaucrats and politicians to ordinary citizens at the grassroots level.
Since its inception in 1996, the DPJ has had 16 presidents. Kan, a cofounder of the party, sought the party presidency 10 times, winning six times, sometimes running unopposed.
Kan’s personal history, however, is dotted with setbacks, and political watchers many times believed he would never make a comeback to lead the DPJ or the government.
But the DPJ’s political hardships and apparent lack of effective leaders once again put the veteran into the spotlight.
“Looking at the past history of the DPJ, you can see party members tend to try to overcome (political) difficulties by changing their president, particularly when an election is coming closer,” Katsuya Okada, also a former DPJ president who officially stepped down as foreign minister Friday, told reporters Wednesday.
“I think voters are carefully scrutinizing the attitude” of DPJ members, he warned.
Kan is known for his short temper, logical thinking and aggressive debating style in Diet sessions.
Despite his calls for empowering the people, Kan was criticized for being dictatorial as party president. Eventually, he was ousted from the post in the 1999 presidential election, replaced by DPJ cofounder Yukio Hatoyama, who stepped down as prime minister Wednesday.
“Kan has changed a lot since the presidential race in 1999,” a DPJ Diet member said.
“He did some soul-searching and has become milder toward others. He has also started smiling a lot before TV cameras” to give a better impression to voters and party members, the lawmaker said.
Kan gained fame as the No. 1 foe of powerful bureaucrats in 1996 when, as health minister, he revealed secret documents held by ministry officials that clearly showed their culpability in the HIV-tainted blood product scandal.
But as finance minister, Kan has toned down his rhetoric and started depending more on bureaucrats to avoid making mistakes in answering questions during Diet sessions.
Kan now may be more of a pragmatist — if not populist — in the political mine field of Nagata-cho than a naive activist for citizen rights, like he was in the 1970s and ’80s.
Indeed, it was Kan who led the merger of the DPJ with the Liberal Party led by Ichiro Ozawa in 2003, despite apparent inconsistencies in the platforms of the two parties and Ozawa’s record of shady-money politics.
But the merger served as a springboard for the DPJ to eventually oust the LDP from power, as Ozawa attracted conservative voters to the DPJ, which had often been criticized for being influenced by former Socialists.
Kan himself is also often regarded as left-leaning, given his political background and the fact his intraparty group includes ex-Socialists.
But his attitude toward security issues does not look particularly left-leaning or pacifist.
On the contrary, Kan once surprised reporters by saying he had studied what military measures Japan could take to directly attack ballistic missile bases in North Korea, a rather bold option for a country with a war-renouncing Constitution.
Kan concluded the best option was to equip Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis-equipped destroyers with Tomahawk cruise missiles or upgrade the Air-Self Defense Force’s F-15 fighters.