Former Democratic Party of Japan leader Naoto Kan announced Friday he will run for the DPJ helm, following Seiji Maehara’s decision the previous day to also run.

Earlier Friday, Deputy DPJ chief Ichiro Ozawa, 63, who was considered a possible candidate, said he would not run, reportedly to take the responsibility for the party’s major defeat in last Sunday’s general election.

The vote Saturday will be between Kan, 58-year-old veteran liberal lawmaker, and Maehara, 43, an expert on security and diplomatic issues.

“When Maehara stood as a candidate, I thought it would be better not to interfere with a generational change” in leadership by coming forward as a candidate, Kan said. “But I was urged by some junior members who said the current critical situation is beyond the issue of a generational change.”

Kan said the party is on the verge of losing its political presence and significance, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, controlling more than two-thirds of the Lower House.

Kan came from a civic movement and participated in forming the forerunner of the DPJ in 1996 after leaving the now-defunct New Party Sakigake. He has been elected leader three times since the DPJ was formed in 1998.

Immediately after declaring his candidacy, Kan met with Ozawa and former DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama separately and asked them to put their group members’ names on his list of supporters.

Kan said he is also seeking support from party members led by Takahiro Yokomichi, who belonged to the Japan Socialist Party before joining the forerunner of the DPJ in 1996.

Maehara is trying to solicit support from junior and mid-echelon members. A DPJ presidential candidate must have more than 20 supporters from its Diet ranks.

Takashi Kawamura is also aiming to stand as a candidate but has faced difficulties in gathering 20 supporters.

Kan’s candidacy came following the resignation of Katsuya Okada over the DPJ’s huge setback in the election.

In the election of the 480-seat Lower House, the DPJ captured only 113 seats — compared with its pre-election strength of 177. The ruling LDP boosted its number of seats to 296.

Maehara has pledged that if elected leader he would rebuild the party from scratch by separating it from various vested interests, including unions, which have been a solid support base.

While Kan is supported largely by senior and midlevel party members who fear a radical generational change in the DPJ leadership, Maehara is supported by the younger generation.

A graduate of Matsushita Institute of the Government and Management, Maehara also joined the forerunner of the DPJ in 1996 after leaving New Party Sakigake.

Serving as the DPJ’s “shadow Cabinet” defense minister, Maehara is a neo-conservative and advocate of amending the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution so the Self-Defense Forces can play a greater role overseas.

New parties team up

The newly launched Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) and New Party Nippon agreed Friday to form a joint parliamentary group in both the Upper and Lower houses, party sources said.

The two parties, composed mainly of former Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers who voted against postal privatization bills, apparently intend to invite independent postal rebels to join the faction.

The new group has five members in the House of Representatives and three in the House of Councilors.

Kokumin Shinto, led by ex-Lower House speaker Tamisuke Watanuki, and New Party Nippon, headed by outspoken Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka, were formed last month after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the Lower House and called the election after the postal bills failed in the Upper House.