- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 23, 2011

TOKYO — A former foreign minister announced his candidacy to lead Japan just hours after unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Tuesday that he would be out of the picture by early next week.

Mr. Kan has been criticized for lacking leadership after the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis, and survivors of the disasters complain of slow relief and recovery efforts. Polls show his approval rating is less than 20 percent.

Former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said Tuesday night that he wants to take over the leadership to restore public trust and hope, especially among disaster victims.

“We must regain public trust in politics and achieve policies that can help people’s sense of safety and hope for the future,” Mr. Maehara said.

Mr. Maehara, 49, is a favorite to replace Mr. Kan, and his entry could affect the plans of other potential candidates.

A security specialist and a China hawk, he has warned against China’s growing military spending and presence in the region.

Mr. Maehara was transport minister and foreign minister during Tokyo’s diplomatic spat with Beijing last year about small islands in the East China Sea claimed by both nations.

China briefly suspended talks and some trade with Japan after a clash between Japanese patrol boats and a Chinese fishing boat and subsequent arrest of its captain.

Mr. Maehara, from Kyoto, is an avid railway train fan and actively has tried to export Japan’s “bullet train” technology.

Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Kan told Cabinet members that his days are numbered and that they should be ready to resign en masse next Tuesday, Economy Minister Kaoru Yosano said.

“He said each minister should do the utmost to prepare for a smooth handover and take care of pending businesses,” Mr. Yosano told reporters.

Mr. Kan had promised in June to step down as soon as parliament passes two key bills - related to the budget and renewable energy - which it is set to do Friday.

That would allow a leadership election Monday within Mr. Kan’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan and a new prime minister — Japan’s sixth in four years. The party election campaign officially begins Saturday.

Japan’s new leader will have to rebuild the country from the triple disasters, tackle a surging yen that is threatening the recovery and map out a new energy policy that is less reliant on nuclear power.

A successor also will have to restore confidence in Japan’s alliance with the U.S. Tokyo recently canceled Mr. Kan’s U.S. visit for talks with President Obama, expected in early September, because of the political uncertainty.

The ruling Democrats also have struggled with a hung parliament because of their defeat in the upper house elections last year and party infighting.

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