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Japan's new strategy chief once beat bureacrats
Updated: 2009-09-07 13:05

Japan's new strategy chief once beat bureacrats
Japan's main opposition Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama (L) and top party executive Naoto Kan react, as results come in for Japan's lower house election, at the Democratic Party of Japan election headquarters in Tokyo August 30, 2009. [Agencies]

TOKYO: Japan's Naoto Kan, set to become minister for a new National Strategy Bureau that will set broad policy goals, has a talent for sparring with bureaucrats that could stand him in good stead in his key cabinet position.

Incoming prime minister Yukio Hatoyama's Democratic Party, which trounced the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in last week's election, has promised to reduce bureaucrats' control over policy as a way to reset spending priorities and cut waste.

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"What a lot of people, including the media, don't understand is that this change of administration is not just a matter of having a new government," Kan wrote on his website.

"There will be a fundamental change in the way the cabinet, parliament and the bureaucracy govern."

Kan, now 62, became Japan's most popular politician for a time when he battled bureaucrats as health minister in 1996 to expose a scandal over HIV-tainted blood products.

Then serving in an LDP-led coalition cabinet, he forced officials to hand over files about untreated blood products that had infected nearly 1,500 haemophiliacs with HIV in the 1980s.

That resulted in apologies and compensation for the surviving victims and convictions for several people involved, including a former senior health ministry official.

In an interview with Reuters in January, Kan said employment was the most immediate problem facing Japan. Unemployment hit a record high of 5.7 percent in July after a massive drop in exports, and Kan said the safety net must be improved.

But some doubt whether he will prove able to work with the bureaucrats he has a history of battling.

"All he has ever done with the bureaucrats is fight them," said political commentator Minoru Morita. "The danger with Kan in this post is that the bureaucrats will simply stop working for fear of being attacked, so nothing will move forward," he added.

A founding member of the Democratic Party, Kan is one of the few party leaders whose roots do not lie in the conservative LDP. A former grassroots activist, he entered politics in a small leftist party.

Known as a sharp debater with a short temper, Kan has served two terms as party leader, both of which ended in embarrassment, but he has remained one of the Democrats' leading figures.

In 1999 he lost a party leadership race after reports, which he denied, of an affair with a television announcer.

In 2004, he was forced to step down after confessing that he had failed to pay some contributions into the public pension system, just as he and other Democratic Party lawmakers were attacking members of the government for similar lapses.

Seeking to atone for his mistakes, Kan shaved his head and donned a Buddhist monk's attire for a traditional pilgrimage to temples on the southern island of Shikoku.

An activist from his student days, Kan successfully campaigned in 1974 to get Fusae Ichikawa, a feminist icon who helped Japanese women gain the vote, elected to parliament's upper house.

Kan was a patent lawyer before winning a seat in parliament. He is married with two sons, one of whom is a political activist.

Kan's hobbies include the strategic board game of Go.