Naoto Kan's Resignation Leaves Japan in Leadership Vacuum

Former Japanese foreign minister Seiji Maehara declared his candidacy at the National Diet in Tokyo on Aug. 23, 2011 to replace Naoto Kan as prime minister next week. (Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)

Japan’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has just announced that it will hold a leadership election next Monday to pick a replacement for Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who had fended off calls for resignation earlier this summer by promising to step down as soon as some vital measures needed for the recovery from March’s earthquake and tsunami disasters pass the Diet.

Though the event had been anticipated for months, no clear front-runners have emerged, reflecting a shortage of vigorous political leadership in a country saddled with enormous challenges. Instead, the field is crowded with more than half a dozen hopefuls, most of them with little name recognition and no clear vision about how to fix the country’s problems.

While some commentators and editorials urge the party to take this opportunity to deepen the public debate about which direction the country should take, in terms of economic, energy, social and foreign policies, the race seems to be turning into a mundane contest for power within the DPJ, in which Kan’s followers are fighting against forces loyal to former party chief Ichiro Ozawa, who was indicted earlier in a money scandal but still wields considerable influence.

In fact, one of the issues in the brief campaign period, along with recovery agenda, tax hikes and a new energy policy, is likely to be whether to reverse the party’s earlier decision to strip Ozawa of his membership.

A surprise entry in the race by former foreign minister Seiji Maehara late Monday energized anti-Ozawa groups, but Maehara faces his own fundraising scandal which forced him to resign from the cabinet in March. Besides, his candidacy may trigger a realignment of forces within the DPJ, further muddling the field and making it harder to predict the outcome.

Ayako Doi is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.

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Ayako Doi is a journalist in Washington. She has covered Japan and the U.S.-Japan relationship since mid 1970s, writing for The Japan Times, Newsweek, the Financial Times and other publications. She is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.