Japan’s new prime minister, Naoto Kan, is known as a self-made politician who clawed his way up to power. Unlike his five predecessors, Kan doesn’t come from an established political family. The son of a businessman, he was a civic activist before entering politics in 1980, and he became a national hero in 1996 when he forced the bureaucracy to admit and apologize that hemophiliacs were treated with HIV-tainted blood products during the 1980s. Ever since, he has cultivated a reputation as a swashbuckling, no-nonsense politician who grilled the then–ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its cozy ties with the bureaucracy. So when Kan assumed the top job in early June, after his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, resigned, many believed this leader with strong convictions and grit just might be able to bring reform to Japan.
But rather than a crusading visionary, Kan looks more like a stereotypical Japanese salaryman: a bland, opportunistic, risk-averse leader who prefers to go with the flow. It’s not just because he shares some of the attributes of Japan’s clichéd office worker, such as a penchant for mah-jongg, drinking, and dozing off during meetings (including parliamentary sessions). It’s also that during the eight months of the Hatoyama government, Kan, in his role as finance minister and vice prime minister, played it safe while other cabinet ministers were challenging the status quo. Swept into office after nearly 50 years of unbroken LDP rule, Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had a mandate for massive change. Yet while Hatoyama’s popularity fizzled over a financial scandal and his failed attempt to move a controversial U.S. Marine base off the island of Okinawa, Kan kept a low profile and avoided commenting on both issues. The press dubbed him “dama-Kan,” or “silent Kan.”
In many ways, Kan seems more concerned about maintaining power than doing anything with it. Once a fierce critic of the opposition LDP for being “America’s yes man,” Kan has signaled he’s unwilling to rock the boat with Tokyo’s principal ally. In a 2002 magazine article, he vowed to “substantially reduce” the Marines’ presence on Okinawa if his party took power. Yet after Hatoyama signed off on an unpopular compromise plan that would keep the base there—and then resigned as a result of it—Kan said he would stick with the deal.
Perhaps most striking is his shifting approach toward Japan’s ruling class of bureaucrats. Before the DPJ took power, Kan slammed a system in which bureaucrats, rather than elected politicians, called the shots on policy. Kan was one of the first politicians in Japan to berate bureaucrats for using taxpayers’ money to serve their own interests. Just after the DPJ took over, he called the bureaucrats “a bunch of idiots who just got good grades in school.” When he became finance minister in January, he vowed not to “be manipulated” by these entrenched powers. In keeping with the DPJ’s campaign pledges, he promised to slash government expenditures and said he wouldn’t discuss the possibility of raising taxes for a year. But over time he began backtracking. He hinted he might open a debate on taxes, as well as on revising some of the DPJ’s ambitious welfare programs, leading to criticism that he’d been tamed by the Finance Ministry’s fiscally conservative bureaucrats. There’s certainly no evidence he put up much of a fight, and the day he was sworn in as prime minister, he declared he “won’t exclude bureaucrats” from the policymaking process, promising instead to seek the “experience of such professionals.”
This could be interpreted as pragmatism. But Kan’s rise to power suggests something else: rank opportunism. At the beginning of his political career in 1974, he coerced a well-known retired 81-year-old women’s rights activist to run for Parliament so he could increase the political clout of his fringy movement. After three failed attempts to win a seat in Parliament, he entered politics as a member of a now-defunct, obscure leftist party, and then moved on to another fringe party in 1994. He aligned with former rivals—at one point becoming health minister in 1996 as a member of a coalition with the LDP, which he so despises—and he quickly seized the opportunity to gain rock-star status. While it is widely perceived that Kan’s firm belief in transparency led him to reveal the HIV scandal, he is said to have offered little help to the victims after his exposé catapulted him to national prominence. With that fame, he founded the DPJ with Hatoyama later that year.
He excelled at grilling and slamming the LDP, but he never offered a credible, constructive alternative plan. The DPJ under his leadership was frequently mocked as “playing house,” and failed to convince voters of the need for real change. At the same time, Kan was a critic of master strategist Ichiro Ozawa, who led the Liberal Party. But, again, he shifted with the political winds. Under his leadership, the party merged with Ozawa’s party in 2003, and as soon as they joined forces, making the DPJ a real contender for the first time, Kan said he “changed his mind” about Ozawa. Thanks to Ozawa’s election strategy, the DPJ ousted the LDP, but once Ozawa and Hatoyama stepped down from the party leadership in early June, Kan changed his tune again. He weakened the influence of Ozawa, who continues to command the largest faction within the DPJ, by installing a staunch anti-Ozawa politician as secretary-general of the party, as well as by excluding pro-Ozawa elements from key cabinet posts. “For the good of himself, the DPJ, and for the country, Mr. Ozawa should stay quiet for a while,” he said.
One result of this political shape-shifting is that Kan has never developed a political philosophy of his own. “Because he was outside the mainstream for so long, his priority was to become part of the majority rather than coming up with a vision for the country,” says Naoki Tanaka, an activist who has known Kan for more than 30 years. The closest thing he ever came up with is his idea of “a society with minimal unhappiness,” a rather mundane socialist platform to reduce unemployment and poverty and prevent war—things any politician would want. In his view, individuals get true happiness from such things as marriage or achieving success, and the government has little power to help people on such matters. The government’s primary responsibility, he believes, is to reduce the things that make people unhappy, such as unemployment, poverty, and war—an underwhelming notion that sounds like a defeatist, stability-oriented salaryman, in contrast with the “pursuit of happiness” ethos of the United States. Now Kan speaks of his version of a “Third Way,” a concept he borrowed from an academic adviser, that includes containing government debt by increasing taxes while slashing wasteful spending, as well as achieving economic growth and fixing the nation’s social-security system by investing in the health and elder-care industries.
Kan’s first big task, though, will be to salvage the Democrats’ prospects in the July upper-house elections. With approval ratings at 60 percent, he may be able to pull it off, but considering his own track record, and that of Japan’s past prime ministers, the longer-term outlook is less rosy. Lately, Kan’s wife, Nobuko, has been telling interviewers that Kan isn’t prime-minister material: “He’s more of a No. 2 or a No. 3 person rather than being at the top.” She is probably right.
With Yoshihiro Nagaoka in Tokyo