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Fiscal hawk Yoshihiko Noda elected Japan's new prime minister, faces multitude of problems
TOKYO (AP) ' Yoshihiko Noda, elected Tuesday as Japan's sixth prime minister in five years, faces a host of daunting problems, from post-tsunami recovery and an ongoing nuclear crisis to reviving a limp economy and reining in the nation's bloated debt.
The legislative vote was largely a formality as Noda was chosen head of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan on Monday. But the list of challenges he faces in his new job would make any politician's head spin.
Beyond providing vision and a strategy for the enormous task of rebuilding the northeastern coast after March's tsunami' the worst catastrophe to hit Japan since World War II ' Noda must unify his fractious party and restore public trust amid widespread disappointment over the government's handling of the disaster and persistent political infighting.
The former finance minister, Noda succeeds the unpopular Naoto Kan, who officially resigned earlier Tuesday with his Cabinet after a tumultuous 15 months in office, during which he was sometimes opposed by members of his own party.
Noda, 54, is a "moderate voice" in the party, Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, wrote in a comment. "He has a steady temperament and a reputation for fairness in a party where loyalties have been severely tested of late."
His Cabinet selection ' which could be announced Wednesday ' will be eyed closely to see how he will spread positions among the ruling party's various factions. In Monday's party vote, which went to a run-off, Noda defeated a minister backed by powerful party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, who is embroiled in a scandal. The result was seen by some as a victory over old-style backroom politics.
A fiscal conservative, Noda is respected for his economic credentials. He has been battling the yen's recent surge, which hurts the country's vital exporters, overseeing Japan's intervention in the currency market earlier this month to weaken the yen.
He has also voiced support in the past for raising Japan's 5 percent sales tax to reduce the nation's national debt, twice the nation's gross domestic product, although he has toned down that tax talk lately.
Given the pressing problems at home, Noda will likely focus on disaster reconstruction and other domestic matters.
But he could face trouble in his relationship with China over past comments about convicted wartime leaders revered at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of all Japan's war dead are enshrined. Earlier this month, Noda reiterated his claim that the wartime leaders had paid their debts and should no longer be seen as war criminals. He made similar comments in 2005.
Yasukuni visits by postwar politicians have often enraged Japan's neighbors, who bore the brunt of Japan's colonial aggression and are sensitive to any efforts by Japan to whitewash its past. He and the rest of Kan's Cabinet chose not to visit the shrine this year.
China's official news agency warned Noda on Monday to not to ignore Beijing's "core interests" or seek to portray it as a threat to regional peace and stability. In a harshly worded editorial, Xinhua demanded Noda not visit Yasukuni and said Tokyo must recognize China's claim over Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku, or Diaoyutai in Chinese.
The two countries got into a spat last year when a Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested ' and later released ' by Japan after his boat sailed close to the islands.
Earlier this month, two Chinese patrol boats entered waters near the islands, prompting strong protests from Tokyo.
Associated Press writer Eric Talmadge contributed to this report.