News24

Japan's finance minister to be PM

2010-06-04 07:41

Tokyo - Japan's next prime minister, Naoto Kan, is a former left-wing activist turned fiscal hawk, known for his sharp debating skills, quick temper and willingness to butt heads with state bureaucrats.

Kan was set to be confirmed in the premiership in a parliamentary vote on Friday after winning the leadership of the ruling centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Nicknamed "Ira-Kan" or "Irritable Kan" for his fiery outbursts, the outgoing finance minister also has a populist flair and has long been a top player in the party he co-founded with outgoing premier Yukio Hatoyama.

The 63-year-old gained popularity in the mid-1990s when, during a stint as health minister, he revealed government culpability in a scandal over HIV-tainted blood products.

Unlike Hatoyama and many other Japanese lawmakers, Kan was not born into a political dynasty but gained his first parliamentary seat through tough campaigning, winning a seat on his fourth try in 1980.

Son of a factory manager

He was born in Yamaguchi prefecture in the west of the main island of Honshu, the son of a factory manager.

A graduate of applied sciences from the prestigious Tokyo Institute of Technology, Kan once invented a points calculator for the board game mah-jong.

"If all had gone well, I would have become quite rich, even if not quite as rich as Bill Gates," he said in an interview, recounting how he unsuccessfully pitched his prototype to Nintendo and other electronics makers.

"I became a politician because nobody put up money for my invention."

Not all of Kan's political career has been plain sailing.

He had to step down during a previous stint as DPJ leader, in 2004, after admitting he had failed to pay full state pension contributions, having earlier attacked ruling party lawmakers for their failure to do so.

In a display of atonement, Kan shaved his head, donned a Buddhist robe and went on a pilgrimage of temples on the island of Shikoku.

Scandal

He faced another scandal over an affair with a television presenter after a gossip magazine revealed they had spent a night together in a hotel room. He later told the media: "My wife scolded me: 'You idiot!'"

Kan managed to save both his political career and his marriage. His wife, Nobuko, with whom he has two sons, is a housewife and also a skilled debater.

He became a leading civic activist in the 1970s, pushing for a variety of pacifist and environmental causes as the protege of a well-known feminist campaigner.

His United Social Democratic Party later disbanded and he launched the DPJ with Hatoyama in 1996.

When the DPJ took power last year, ending more than half a century of virtual one-party conservative rule, Kan became a deputy prime minister.

He was given the task of heading a new National Strategy Bureau, where he did battle with bureaucrats in a bid to wrest back power for politicians, a key DPJ campaign promise.

Finance minister

He took over as finance minister in January despite admitting he was not an economics expert. He once joked that he struggled to work his way through thick tomes on the subject by Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson.

Since taking the job, he has advocated a weaker yen and occasionally badgered the central bank to do more to help Japan emerge from its worst post-war recession and fight deflation.

Taking note of Greece's troubles, he has also pushed for fiscal austerity and tax rises to reduce a ballooning public deficit which is nearing 200 percent of gross domestic product.

Politically, Kan opposed Japan's sending troops to Iraq but has also advocated a greater role for the military - which is restricted by a post-war pacifist constitution - for humanitarian missions.