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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

DEMOCRATIC CHALLENGE

A fresh politician tackles the old guard


IT WASN'T EXACTLY FRANCE over Brazil, but Kan Naoto, whose Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had just emerged as an election winner, couldn't help but gloat: "Voters gave a yellow card to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - that's what the election result is all about." In football, a yellow card means a player has one more chance. That's about right. The LDP has perhaps a last opportunity to turn Japan around. If it fails, Kan's party is poised to try.

The DPJ is the latest contender for the position of Japan's second party, one that is powerful and popular enough to regularly challenge the long-dominant LDP. For a time, it seemed Ozawa Ichiro's New Frontier Party might fill the void, but factional fighting doomed the party as far back as the 1996 general elections. It split six ways last year. The Democratic Party now includes a diverse group of reformers wanting a political banner under which to coalesce. The DPJ, which already holds 92 seats in the 500-seat lower house, gained nine last week to hold 47 in the upper house, making it the largest opposition party.

Kan is the party's greatest asset. Polls show he is by far the public's favorite choice to be prime minister with numbers consistently more than twice as high as whoever finishes in second. Born in Yamaguchi prefecture at the southern tip of Honshu to a relatively affluent family - his father was an engineer - Kan was a student activist in the 1960s. He developed his penchant for going against the grain of Japanese society early, pursuing liberal causes at the conservative Tokyo Institute of Technology. Upon graduating, he first worked as a patent attorney. But he soon gravitated toward causes such as the environment and housing affordability. In 1980 he was elected to the House of Representatives at the tender age of 33.

Kan bust upon the nation's consciousness in 1996 when, as health minister, he publicly apologized for bureaucratic incompetence that led to a massive spread of HIV among the nation's hemophiliacs. The scandal had actually occurred in the mid-1980s, and Kan also exposed the subsequent cover-up within his own ministry. A scuba-diving enthusiast, Kan is known to have a sharp temper and earnest demeanor. His honesty and up-front manner are refreshing to many Japanese, and expectations for he and the party he has led since April are high. But in Japanese politics, high expectations often lead to profound disappointment - ask Hashimoto Ryutaro.

Can Kan break the mold? He talks a good game. Kan opposes the kind of massive infrastructure spending favored by the LDP as an economic stimulus. He proposes more than $40 billion in tax cuts - half of that permanent - as a way to encourage consumer spending. He wants to revitalize the nation's sick banking system by pulling the plug on ailing banks and promoting transparency so problems are identified early. He favors reducing the size and power of the bureaucracy.

Kan's political role model is Tony Blair, the 45-year-old British prime minister who has modernized and brought into the mainstream that nation's Labor Party. However, Kan may have penned a more apt comparison himself with his 1980s book A Citizen Guerrilla Challenging the Parliament. His time might not have arrived just yet, but the best guerrilla fighters are always patient and ready to pounce when the opportunity arises.

JAPANESE NAMES IN ASIAWEEK ARE RENDERED FAMILY NAME FIRST UNLESS AN INDIVIDUAL PREFERS OTHERWISE

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