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Japan to get new leader after prime minister quits

Naoto Kan was criticized for his response to the March earthquake and tsunami. His successor faces the challenges of rebuilding, forging a new nuclear policy and curbing a huge public debt.

August 27, 2011|By John M. Glionna | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Reporting from Seoul — Japan's ruling party is expected to name a new leader Monday, a figure likely to succeed unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who fulfilled a promise to quit because of his largely ineffective response to the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

In a nationally televised speech Friday, Kan announced that he was relinquishing his post as chief of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, effectively ending his 15-month tenure as national leader.

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.

Potential successors include Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Trade Minister Banri Kaieda and former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.

The winner, who would become the nation's sixth prime minister since 2006, faces challenges that include rebuilding after the March disaster, forging a new nuclear policy and curbing a public debt twice the size of the nation's $5-trillion economy.

The new leader will also need to mend fences with the United States over the relocation of an American military base on Okinawa. Kan had recently canceled talks with President Obama because of uncertainty over his political future.

The 64-year-old Kan, a former finance minister and Tokyo civic activist, was belittled for having a limited grasp of foreign, domestic or economic affairs and grew increasingly unpopular with citizens.

His low approval rating plummeted further after the March earthquake and tsunami 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.

A recent poll by Japan's Kyodo News agency showed that Kan's popularity rating among voters had dropped to 15.8%.

In the weeks after the meltdown at several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Kan was criticized for leaving too much control in the hands of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that runs the plant.

The Kyodo poll showed that 75% of respondents favored a plan to phase out nuclear power, but most were determined to be rid of Kan as well.

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