Japan's maverick wages war on political corruption

LOCAL HEROES No 22: Naoto Kan

Tokyo - Virtue and power, in Japan even more than in most countries, are terms mutually incompatible, and until recently the list of heroic politicians would hardly have filled the back of a medium-sized postage stamp.

Election to the two houses of the Japanese Diet is a grubby business requiring family or business connections, large amounts of cash, or all three. No one, or almost no one, remains untainted, and the air of weary desperation which this induces in the public was vividly demonstrated in local elections last year. Faced with the choice between the established parties and a pair of former television comedians, voters expressed their disgust by electing as governors of Tokyo and Osaka the Japanese equivalent of Norman Wisdom and Ernie Wise.

Naoto Kan, 48, is no comedian. If anything, he is a rather serious and quick-tempered man, a professional politician who in January became Health and Welfare Minister. But, in the space of three months, he has risen almost out of nowhere to the kind of personal popularity that money alone can never buy.

Mr Kan's apotheosis came about through his role in one of the saddest of the scandals which plague the Japanese bureaucracy. In the early Eighties, governments worldwide were facing up to the threat posed by the Aids virus. By 1983, it was clear that among the most vulnerable groups were haemophiliacs, who could catch the virus from infected anti-clotting blood products. But it was not until 1985 that treated blood products were licensed for use in Japan.

In the interim, nearly 2,000 people were infected; hundreds have since died of full-blown Aids. Victims had long suspected that the bureaucrats had delayed the licensing deliberately to give Japanese pharmaceutical companies time to catch up with their United States competitors. But the health ministry insisted that it had made a genuine mistake.

Enter Naoto Kan. As a member of Sakigake, the smallest of the three parties in Japan's uneasy coalition, his appointment to the health ministry was a mere token. Mr Kan was known as a moderate liberal, something of a political outsider, with a record of modest campaigning on welfare issues. Nobody was prepared for the impact he would have.

Within a few weeks he had taken the ministry by the scruff of the neck. He personally ordered a search for the "lost" documents, which proved that the ministry had known all along about the dangers of infected blood; in a matter of days, they were found. More incriminating documents turned up last April, and a long-drawn out legal settlement granting compensation to victims and their families was settled with unexpected speed.

The moment for which he will always be remembered came on a bitter winter's day last February. A group of haemophiliacs and their supporters had been keeping a vigil in tents outside the ministry. Mr Kan invited them inside and, watched by millions of television viewers, offered a full apology on behalf of the government.

Recently Mr Kan announced his imminent departure from Sakigake to join a new opposition party to be formed by a group of young politicians.

But Japanese politics is unused to forceful individualists; parties still depend on the support of rank-and-file politicians who, it is said, are suspicious of Mr Kan. In cutting through the red tape, and winning the admiration of voters, he may have alienated the very people who hold the key to his political future.

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