Published: Jun 02, 2010 11:58 AM EDT
Updated: Jun 02, 2010 8:58 AM EDT

TOKYO (AP) - Embattled Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama

resigned Wednesday to improve his party's chances in an election

next month, after his popularity plunged over his broken campaign

promise to move a U.S. Marine base.

Finance Minister Naoto Kan, who has a clean and defiant image,

emerged as a likely successor. He signaled he intends to run for

leadership of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan at a party

meeting to be held Friday.

Sweeping into office just eight months ago by defeating the

long-ruling conservatives, Hatoyama captured the imagination of

many Japanese voters with his promises to bring change and

transparency to government, as the country grappled with economic

stagnation and an aging, shrinking population.

So when he failed to deliver on his pledge to move the Marine

Air Station Futenma off the southern island of Okinawa and his

staff got ensnared in a political funding scandal, his approval

ratings rapidly sank, falling below 20 percent.

"He could not live up to the huge expectations," said Tetsuro

Kato, professor of politics at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

"He just proved himself to be a rich kid without experience and

leadership skills.

"The expectations were so great, the disappointment was also

great," he added.

Hatoyama, a professor-like millionaire with a Ph.D in

engineering from Stanford University, is the fourth Japanese prime

minister to resign in four years. Viewed as somewhat aloof and

eccentric by the Japanese public, he earned the nickname "alien."

"Since last year's elections, I tried to change politics in

which the people of Japan would be the main actors," Hatoyama told

a news conference broadcast nationwide. But he conceded his efforts

fell short and people stopped listening to him.

"That's mainly because of my failings," he said.

In recent days, he faced growing calls from within his own party

to quit or imperil its chances in upper house elections likely to

be held sometime in July. Hatoyama, the grandson of a prime

minister, acknowledged in a news conference broadcast nationwide

that he had disappointed the country with his handling of the

Futenma issue, as well as the funding scandal.

The DPJ's powerful No. 2, Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa - seen

by many as a "shadow shogun" - also resigned.

The party will meet Friday to choose a new chief, who will

almost certainly become the next prime minister because the

Democratic Party of Japan controls a majority in the more powerful

lower house of parliament.

Analysts say the new prime minister faces an enormously

challenging and unenviable job of steering his party through an

extremely difficult election and minimizing the damage.

The leader would also have to carry out the government's promise

with the U.S. to build a new base on Okinawa, and woo a

disenchanted public, disgusted over Hatoyama's indecisiveness and

broken promises.

The new leader may not even last long - in case he needs to

resign to take responsibility for the DPJ's poor showing in the

balloting.

Among the strong contenders as Hatoyama's replacement is Kan,

63, a former health minister, who has been popular with voters

after exposing a government cover-up of HIV-tainted blood products

that caused thousands of hemophilia patients to contract the virus

that causes AIDS. He has a reputation for speaking his mind and

sometimes being hot-tempered.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, seen as mild and levelheaded, is

another possible candidate. But his involvement in discussions over

the Futenma base issue might be viewed as a negative by voters.

The slick-haired, soft-spoken Hatoyama, who grew up in a

well-to-do family of politicians, may have grown too out of touch

with everyday people and their economic hardships.

"I was very disappointed," said Masahiro Ueda, 38, who works

for a software company, of Hatoyama's failure to deliver. "I

thought he could change things, but in the end the issue just went

back to square one."

Besides Futenma, Hatoyama reneged on other promises such as cash

payments for children to reverse an aging society, halving the

money from the initial proposal, and toll-free highways, which have

been postponed.

Japanese politics tend to be unpredictable, and it is still

unclear who will be picked in the jockeying of power among blocs of

lawmakers in the Democratic Party. The pick will be Japan's next

prime minister, because the Democrats have the majority in the

lower house that chooses this nation's chief.

Hatoyama's coalition was dealt a blow over the weekend when the

Social Democrats, a junior partner in the coalition, withdrew from

the government after Hatoyama dismissed the party's leader, Mizuho

Fukushima, from his Cabinet because she could not accept his

decision on Futenma.

Half the seats in the 242-member upper house will be up for

election. The DPJ and its Peoples New Party coalition partner

together have 122 seats, with 56 up for grabs in July.

The DPJ and its partner can lose a majority in the chamber and

still remain in power because they control the more powerful lower

house. But it will make it more difficult for them to pass key

legislation.

The once-powerful LDP remains in disarray after its crushing

defeat last year, but recent polls show some voters may be swinging

back toward the party.

Japanese media reports have also listed Transport Minister Seiji

Maehara and Reform Minister Yoshito Sengoku as other possible

successors.

Hiroshi Kawahara, political science professor at Waseda

University, said Kan may emerge the safe choice because of his

clean image - although he is probably unable to save the party from

defeat in July's elections.

"Public disappointment is now so deep that Kan alone cannot

restore voters' confidence," he said.

Hideto Sakaoka, a 54-year-old company employee, says he isn't

voting for the DPJ again.

"We cannot let Hatoyama lead Japan," he said. "His words and

actions always kept changing, and I don't trust him anymore."