TOKYO Aug. 26, 2011 -- Embattled Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan stepped down today, amid mounting criticism over his government's handling of the country's worst natural disaster and nuclear accident.
His resignation comes two months after Kan vowed to take responsibility for the crisis, and nearly 15 months after he rose to power, making him the sixth prime minister to step down in five years.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan will vote for its new leader on Monday, paving the way for Kan's replacement.
"I feel that I've done everything necessary, under these difficult circumstances," Kan told DPJ lawmakers, in a nationally televised address. "Now I would like to see you chose somebody respectable as the new prime minister."
Japan has been plagued by political instability at a time when it faces an increasingly challenging economic climate. The country's public debt is now more than twice its GDP, and the Japanese yen has battered exporters as it hovers at a post-war high against the dollar. The world's third largest economy is tasked with rebuilding tsunami ravaged communities along the northeast coast, a reconstruction effort that is estimated to cost more than $200 billion.
Japan Readies for Sixth Prime Minister in Five Years
Kan, 64, was seen as a political maverick when he first took office last June. Unlike most Japanese lawmakers who are born into political families, Kan was considered a self-made man who rose through the ranks as a civic activist. He eventually became the health minister in the 1990s, when he garnered national attention for exposing the cover-up of a scandal involving HIV tainted blood products.
But Kan's honeymoon with voters didn't last long. Shortly after taking office as prime minister, his approval ratings started to slip after signaling he would raise the national sales tax to cope with mounting debt problems. The proposal cost the DPJ the upper house election one month later. Prior to the March 11 disasters, Kan faced calls for his removal over a political funding scandal.
"In some ways, the March 11 disasters prolonged Kan's fate," said Yasunori Sone, political science professor at Keio University. "He was on the verge of being forced out when the earthquake and tsunami hit. They extended his lifeline."
Japan's Kan Hurt by Country's Disasters
In the aftermath of the massive earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daichi plant, Kan was criticized for his lack of leadership. Survivors complained the government was too slow to act, even as 3 nuclear reactors suffered meltdowns. While nearly 80,000 people living near the Fukushima plant have since been evacuated, it took the government months to inform residents of the extent of radiation contamination. Meanwhile, the country has struggled to maintain food safety, as reports of radiation in everything from spinach to rice surface on a weekly basis – yet another sign, critics say, of the government's failure to respond properly.
A no-confidence motion submitted in Parliament in June, prompted Kan to announce his eventual departure, though he refused to step down until lawmakers passed a budget financing bill, and energy bill that called for less reliance on nuclear energy.
In his final months, Kan mounted a fierce campaign against the country's nuclear power industry, shutting down the vulnerable Hamaoka Plant in Shizuoka. While his policy to phase out nuclear energy resonated with voters, it didn't improve his approval ratings, which fell below 20 percent.
Sone says Kan was hurt by political infighting and a divided government, but he didn't help his cause with his inability to communicate with the public.
"The voters didn't trust Kan as a leader," he said. "Kan's ideas were proposed on a whim. They weren't very thought out. He failed to explain the larger picture."
As many as seven DPJ lawmakers are expected to vie for party leader. Former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, and current Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda are considered frontrunners.
Kan has not backed either candidate, but called for unity, as the DPJ votes for the next prime minister.
"I hope to see this party become one, where everyone from the young to the veterans can discuss policy actively and freely, then cooperate and act as one," he said.