Japanese prime minister bows out after personal ratings drop to 10%

Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan announced his resignation yesterday after almost 15 months in office amid plunging approval ratings over his government’s handling of the tsunami disaster and nuclear crisis.

In a televised speech, Mr Kan said he was stepping down as chief of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and would quit as premier after the ruling party votes on Monday to select a new leader – the country’s sixth prime minister in five years.

Japan has been plagued by a high turnover in political leadership at a time when it faces huge problems, including an ageing population, soaring debt and a stagnant economy. It also has to cope with a costly reconstruction following the March tsunami and quake, the worst disaster it has suffered since the Second World War.

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Former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, a 49-year-old expert in defence and a China hawk, is viewed as the front-runner to replace Mr Kan. Finance minister Yoshihiko Noda and trade minister Banri Kaieda are also viewed as contenders.

The decision was widely expected. In June, Mr Kan had promised to quit once three key pieces of legislation had been passed, the final two of which cleared parliament yesterday. He managed to survive only a few months longer than the four previous prime ministers, who each lasted a year or less.

Looking back on his year and three months in office, Mr Kan said he did all he could.

“Under the severe circumstances, I feel I’ve done everything that I had to do,” he said. “Now I would like to see you choose someone respectable as a new prime minister.”

The 64-year-old has seen his approval ratings tumble below 20 per cent amid a perceived lack of leadership after the 11 March earthquake and tsunami, which led to meltdowns at three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

Only 10 per cent of respondents approved of Mr Kan’s performance, while 69 per cent disapproved, in an poll conducted between 29 July and 10 August. Some 21 per cent said they neither approved nor disappoved.

Survivors have complained about slow recovery efforts, and radiation has spread into the air, water and some foods. Radiation leaking from the plant has declined dramatically as workers try to bring the plant to a cold shutdown by January.

Many of the 100,000 people evacuated from around the plant live in temporary housing or shelter, and have no idea when they will be able to return to their homes. Accumulated radiation in some locations may keep them away for a considerable time.

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Mr Kan was at least partly undone by political infighting. While the public hungered for political co-operation and vision in the wake of the crisis, parliamentary sessions frequently descended into squabbling matches.

It was a no-confidence motion in June submitted by an opposition bloc that prompted Mr Kan to promise he would resign in a bid to keep colleagues from joining the vote. In the wake of the crisis, Mr Kan urged Japan to become less reliant on nuclear energy.

Contenders will officially declare their candidacy today, followed by a debate tomorrow and party vote on Monday. The new Cabinet is expected to be installed on Tuesday.

Mr Kan urged the Democrats to seek unity. A key player in the process remains party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, who still wields influence even though he lost to Mr Kan in the party leadership election last September.

“I hope to see this party become one, where everyone from the young to the veterans can discuss policy actively and freely, then co-operate and act as one,” Mr Kan said.

He added that Tokyo should keep the Japan-US alliance as “cornerstone” of its security and foreign policy.

He also urged his successor to “not put off any longer” attempts to rein in Japan’s public debt, which has grown to more than twice its gross domestic product. The idea of raising its 5 per cent sales tax now seems unlikely.