Japanese Prime Minister Kan Signals Resignation

PM signals he will step down once disaster reconstruction efforts take hold.

June 2, 2011— -- Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan signaled Thursday that he would step down once disaster reconstruction efforts take hold. While the leader gave no timeline for his resignation, he called on members of his ruling Democratic Party of Japan to keep him in office so he can take "responsibility for the situation."

Kan had been facing a no-confidence vote on Thursday when he made the statements, but the vote failed to pass later in the day. Kan won by a margin of 293-152 in the 480-seat lower house. According to the Associated Press, the remaining members were absent or abstained from the vote.

"Once I've fulfilled my role, I would like to pass on the responsibility to a younger generation," Kan said in a nationally televised meeting of DPJ lawmakers. "Until we can reach that point, I ask that you allow me to fulfill my responsibility."

Kan's plea comes amid mounting criticism over his handling of Japan's worst natural disaster. Nearly three months after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear crises at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant, reactors continue to spew radiation and leak contaminated water.

More than 24,000 people are either dead or missing along the northeastern coast in the Tohoku region, while 80,000 people have been evacuated from their homes because of radiation concerns. Plant operator Tokyo Electric and Kan's government has been criticized for what many consider a slow response to the disasters.

On Wednesday, the main opposition Liberal Democratic party, the New Komeito party, and the Sunrise Party of Japan submitted a motion to the Lower House, calling for a no-confidence vote against Kan. While the Prime Minister survived the vote, the debate over his leadership threatens to strain the ruling party further at a time when the country faces its largest rebuilding effort since World War II.

"It's more of the same: policy, gridlock, and paralysis," said Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan campus. "It's a total mess. The nation's interest is being held hostage to petty politics."

Victims still reeling from the triple disaster are increasingly growing frustrated over the political infighting in Tokyo. Thousands still remain in evacuation centers, and construction of temporary homes has moved along slowly. The government aimed to build 30,000 homes by the end of May, but failed to meet that target. Jin Sato, the mayor of Minami Sanriku, one of the most heavily damaged towns, said it was time to put aside politics as usual.

"I'm not the only one angry [at the no-confidence vote]," he said. "I imagine every one of the [tsunami] victims feel the same way. I ask these politicians to consider our wishes, and move forward with the reconstruction efforts."

The no-confidence comes exactly one year after previous Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama stepped down over his handling of a U.S. military base in Okinawa. Japan has gone through four prime ministers in the last four years. None have lasted more than 12 months on the job.

Kingston says the revolving political door has hurt the country's image on the international stage, and pointed to credit ratings agency Moody's recent announcement to review Japan's sovereign debt rating as one example. Moody's said it was considering a downgrade because "a weak policy response would make more challenging the government's ability to fashion and achieve a credible deficit reduction target."

"The constant change of leadership, the focus on politics instead of policy is harmful, not only to Japan's image but to the economy," Kingston said.