Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his cabinet will resign in the coming days, a senior cabinet minister says, plunging the country into fresh uncertainty even as it is still struggling to recover from a devastating tsunami and nuclear disaster.
Mr. Kan, whose government had grown deeply unpopular due to its perceived mishandling of the twin crises, had earlier promised to resign as soon as three key pieces of legislation were passed. The last bill is expected to pass this week, and Mr. Kan will step down in time for his Democratic Party of Japan to hold an internal party election on Aug. 30, Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano was quoted as saying.
The winner of next week's party vote will become the third prime minister since the DPJ won power in two years ago, and the sixth Japanese prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in September 2006.
While Mr. Kan won high marks for his leadership in the early days following the tsunami – particularly for a speech in which he promised Japan would be built again "from scratch," recalling the country's recovery from the Second World War – he later lost the public's trust over his handling of the nuclear file.
Mr. Kan's government was slow to acknowledge the severity of what was happening at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear complex, the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Japan initially imposed a far smaller evacuation zone around the reactors than what foreign governments were recommending, only to later expand the no-go zone.
His critics say that after the crisis began, Mr. Kan – uncertain of who he could trust – relied almost exclusively on his small inner circle for advice. "He resorted to (too) few advisors, especially in handling major issues includes the nuclear disaster," said Takao Toshikawa, a Tokyo-based political analyst.
By this week, a poll conducted by the Kyodo news agency found that just 15.8 per cent of Japanese voters said they backed the Kan government.
Mr. Kan was hampered in his response to by the country's powerful and secretive nuclear industry, and in recent weeks has begun advocating that Japan move to completely wean itself off its reliance on nuclear power. One of the three pieces of legislation he made his resignation conditional upon will see power companies forced to buy up all domestically produced renewable energy.
Mr. Kan's push to rid Japan of nuclear power seemed to capture the public imagination, even if it was too late to rehabilitate his image. The same Kyodo poll found that three-quarters of the 1,016 respondents wanted to see the incoming government continue the effort, and the anti-nuclear movement has in recent months shown its strength by rallying surprisingly large crowds into the streets of Tokyo and other cities.
Among those who have declared their intention to seek Mr. Kan's job, outspoken former foreign minister Seiji Maehara appears to be the front-runner, with Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda also expected to run.
Whoever wins the race will inherit what Japanese call a "twisted parliament," with the ruling DPJ controlling the lower house of the Diet but opposition parties holding effective veto power over legislation due to their control of the upper house.
Editor's Note: An earlier headline on this story said Japan would soon have its sixth prime minister in five years. This version has been corrected.