Prime Minister Naoto Kan arrives at a general meeting of his ruling Democratic… (Toru Hanai / Reuters )
Reporting from Seoul — Beleaguered Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan stepped down Friday, fulfilling a promise to critics who blasted what they called his befuddled response to the nation's dual economic and nuclear calamities triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
In a nationally televised speech, Kan announced that he was relinquishing his post as chief of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), effectively ending his brief 15-month tenure as national leader.
The long-anticipated resignation cleared the way for the DPJ to select a new leader Monday -- with the winner almost certainly to become Japan's prime minister -- as hopefuls jockeyed for position in a race that has become a familiar feature of Japanese politics.
Kan's departure, after assuming his post last June following another Japanese power shakeup, means that his successor will become the nation's sixth prime minister since 2006. Kan had said he would quit once lawmakers passed three key pieces of post-tsunami recovery legislation, the last two of which cleared parliament Friday.
The 64-year-old Kan, a former finance minister who entered politics after laboring as a Tokyo civic activist, initially held the appeal of an outsider who rose up the political ladder on his own merit, rather than merely inheriting political favor as the son or grandson of an outgoing politician.
Yet as prime minister, Kan become increasing unpopular with everyday Japanese citizens, belittled as an ineffective leader with little grasp of foreign, domestic or economic affairs.
His approval rating, already near a historic low, plummeted further after what critics call several blunders following the March natural disaster that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
The catastrophe led to the release of deadly radiation into the atmosphere and prompted the evacuation of tens of thousands of nearby residents, many of whom have yet to return to their homes.
"Kan came to power with such high hopes as an activist and a new breed of politician," said John Harris, a Japan-based political analyst. "In a really dismal field of choices last year, he seemed like the best one, but he's been a terrible disappointment to everyone."
A recent poll by Japan's Kyodo News Agency showed that Kan's popularity rating among voters had dropped to just 15.8%. In the weeks following the meltdown at several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, critics lambasted Kan for failing to take charge of the disaster response and leaving too much power in the hands of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that runs the plant.
"Under Kan, Japan reacted to the skidding economy following the tsunami by hitting the brakes, rather than gunning the engine to power out of the skid," said Harris. "Even months after the quake, little was happening. Corporate spending went down. The government seemed to say, "You can't have a Cherry Blossom party. You can't play golf; it's not respectful to the dead and missing. They brought on a recession through self-restraint."
Only after the disaster did Kan call for alternatives to Japan's nuclear power policies. While the Kyodo poll showed that 75% of respondents favored a plan to phase out nuclear power, most were determined to be rid of Kan as well.
"He just didn't have what it took to be Japan's top leader," said Akiko Domoto, a former governor of Chiba Prefecture who worked closely with Kan within the party. "In the party, he did a good job, but as prime minister, he couldn't talk with the bureaucrats and had little control. Especially after the earthquake, he tried to do everything by himself. We needed a strong leader, and his leadership just wasn't strong enough."
William Saito, a technology venture capitalist who was among a team to advise the Kan administration in the wake of the tsunami, said Kan was pulled in too many directions to provide adequate leadership. "Given all that was going on, I'd just call it information overload," he said of Kan's response to the nuclear crisis.
Potential successors for the prime minister post include former Foreign Minister Seji Maehara, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Trade Minister Banri Kaieda.
The winner faces challenges that include rebuilding from the March disaster, forging a new nuclear policy and curbing a public debt that's already twice the size of Japan's $5 trillion economy. The new leader will also need to mend fences with the U.S. over the relocation of an American military base on Okinawa. Kan had recently cancelled talks with President Barack Obama over uncertainty about the Japanese leader's political future.
The prime minister race was jolted earlier this week with the surfacing of the popular Maehara. The 49-year-old security hawk has proclaimed that boosting growth, taming inflation and phasing out nuclear power are his top priorities.