June 4, 2010 5:27 pm

Japan’s new PM breaks mould

Naoto Kan is no standard-issue Japanese prime minister – and not just because he is surely the first to have patented an automatic calculator for scoring the traditional Chinese game of mahjong.

Unlike all of his five immediate predecessors, the incoming premier is not the direct descendant of a prime minister or minister. Indeed, ahead of his election as head of the ruling Democratic party, Mr Kan, 63, stressed his roots in an “ordinary salaryman’s family” – a background he suggested would highlight the DPJ’s reformist credentials and make a healthy change for politics in general.

Mr Kan also brings a highly distinctive CV to his new role leading the DPJ’s drive to revitalise Japanese government and curb the power of bureaucrats, a mission that began with a landslide election victory last year but has faltered badly under the leadership of outgoing prime minister Yukio Hatoyama.

The mahjong calculator, dreamed up while Mr Kan was studying physics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and later put on show at a museum in the eastern Chiba prefecture, did not lead to fame as an inventor. After graduating in 1971, Mr Kan qualified as a patent agent.

His early career hints at reserves of determination that should serve him well as prime minister, a meat-grinder of a job in which none of his four immediate predecessors have lasted much more than a year.

After years of social activism, Mr Kan’s first taste of national politics was as an organiser of a successful Diet upper house election campaign for celebrated Japanese suffragette Fusae Ichikawa in 1974. Determined to challenge the long-ruling Liberal Democratic party in parliament himself, he ran three failed campaigns as an independent before finally winning election to its lower house in 1980.

But it was while his small New Party Sakigake was in coalition with the LDP in 1996 that he won national fame by demonstrating that politicians could control the bureaucrats. As health minister, he managed to force officials to reveal long-hidden information implicating the government in the infection of 1,800 haemophiliacs in Japan with Aids-contaminated blood in the 1980s.

This demonstration of political will and government responsibility – Mr Kan formally apologised to the victims – made him the nation’s most popular politician and paved the way for a central role in opposition groups leading up to the DPJ’s victory last year.

Yet Mr Kan is hardly invulnerable. In the late 1990s his popularity was damaged by allegations of infidelity – which he denied. In 2004 he resigned as party head for the second time over failure to make compulsory state pension payments. Though it is now accepted that the pension problem was not his fault, it prompted him to don a straw hat and white pilgrim’s clothes and tour 88 temples on Japan’s western Shikoku island in order to “search his soul”.

The incoming PM is still no placid saint, however. His most widely used nickname is “irritable Kan”, a reference to his limited tolerance for the perceived failings of others.

Kenichi Shimomura, a broadcaster who worked with Mr Kan during his early political career, says the reputation for a short fuse is justified – but adds Mr Kan does not hold grudges and that, when well directed, his passions are a source of power. “When dealing with bureaucrats or other difficult challenges, for example, he shows great strength,” says Mr Shimomura. “The aggressive part of his character really works for him at times such as when he was looking for the Aids files.”

Some worry that his anti-bureaucratic edge might have been blunted after five months in charge of finance ministry officials, whose priorities he appears to have done little to challenge. Yet Mr Kan surely knows he must co-operate with the bureaucrats to keep government functioning even as he tries to curb their influence. Even before taking office Mr Kan is already an unusual prime minister. If he can pull that off, he will be a historic one.

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