Japan's Not-So-Prime Minister

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Byline: Takashi Yokota and Yoshihiro Nagaoka

What does Naoto Kan really believe? For better or worse, Japan's new prime minister has a reputation as a flip-flopper. Like the way he used to denounce the opposition Liberal Democratic Party for being "America's yes man"--but now suggests he'll do nothing to disturb the U.S.-Japan relationship. Or the way he vowed in 2002 to "substantially reduce" the U.S. Marines' presence on Okinawa, yet when his predecessor agreed to let them stay (he was forced to resign as a result), Kan said he'd honor the deal. Or the way he used to slam Tokyo's powerful bureaucrats as "a bunch of idiots." But when he was sworn in as prime minister last week, he promised to consult their "knowledge and experience."

You could call it pragmatism, but some Japanese say it's something else: rank opportunism. At the start of his career in the 1970s, Kan forced an 81-year-old women's rights activist to run for Parliament so he could improve the clout of his fledgling movement and his own political prospects. He had no problem aligning with former rivals, and was part of a coalition with the LDP--a party he usually scorns--to land a spot as health minister in 1996. He used that platform to achieve rock-star status by forcing the bureaucracy to admit that it had let hemophiliacs receive HIV-tainted blood products during the 1980s. …