Tokyo: Japan’s new centre-left Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took power on Wednesday and named his cabinet lieutenants, in a fresh start for Asia’s top economy after decades of conservative dominance.
The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader was installed in a parliamentary vote two and a half weeks after his party’s stunning election victory changed the country’s political landscape.
“Today is a turning point in history,” Hatoyama told fellow lawmakers earlier in the day.
“It’s the day to drastically change the political and administrative structures. We will continue to act in unity, always looking to the people.”
Japan’s usually risk-averse voters, tired with a stagnant political system and years of economic malaise, took a chance on the untested DPJ when they threw out the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on 30 August.
But while the party itself is unfamiliar with power, Hatoyama’s newly announced cabinet appointments encompass years of experience.
Hirohisa Fujii — a 77-year-old former finance ministry bureaucrat who has railed against wasteful public spending — was appointed finance minister, a post that he briefly held in the early 1990s.
Katsuya Okada, 56, a former DPJ leader known as “Mr Clean” for his strait-laced image, was named foreign minister tasked with overhauling Japan’s relations with the United States and Asia.
Naoto Kan, a DPJ co-founder, was appointed deputy prime minister and head of the newly-formed National Strategy Bureau, which will have the crucial remit of wresting control over policy and budgets from the powerful state bureaucracy.
The new defence minister is Toshimi Kitazawa, a senior party official who once opposed sending troops to Iraq for reconstruction work and accused George W. Bush’s US administration of “enforcing democracy by military might”.
“It will be the start of a new era,” Hidekazu Kawai, political science professor emeritus of Gakushuin University, told AFP.
“But that is not to say the public is euphoric. Voters are very cool and keenly watching whether the DPJ can pull off their agenda. The people are dissatisfied with the LDP. They are also anxious about the DPJ.”
Defeated prime minister Taro Aso and his cabinet earlier resigned en masse, bringing the curtain down on more than half a century of virtually uninterrupted LDP rule.
“I did my best for the sake of Japan, in a very short period... but unfortunately, I am stepping down halfway through,” said Aso, whose approval ratings imploded during his year in office.
The political sea-change comes a year after the collapse of US investment bank Lehman Brothers triggered the global economic crisis, which hit Japan’s export-led economy hard and sent unemployment to a post-war high.
Hatoyama, a US-trained engineering scholar and scion of a political dynasty, has promised to make politics work for the people and to undo an “iron triangle” that existed between the LDP, big business and the state bureaucracy.
He has pledged sweeping change, from boosting social welfare without raising taxes, to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and redefining Japan’s place in the world by seeking closer ties with its Asian neighbours.
“I’m thrilled with the joy of creating history, and at the same time I feel the very grave responsibility for creating history,” Hatoyama said hours before he was appointed by the Diet legislature.
Within days of taking office, Hatoyama will head to the United States to meet world leaders next week at the UN General Assembly, a climate change summit, and a G20 meeting in Pittsburgh on the world economy.
Having criticised “US-led globalism” and signalled plans to scale down some ties with the US military, Hatoyama will seek to assure President Barack Obama — whose message of “change” he has echoed — that Japan is a reliable partner.
Hatoyama was set to hold his first news conference Wednesday evening before all the cabinet members were to be sworn in by Emperor Akihito at a palace ceremony.