3 rivals in Japan opposition leader poll don't agree on how to regain voters' confidence

TOKYO (AFP) - The three men vying to lead Japan's fractured and demoralised opposition met the foreign press on Thursday, with one arguing the party needed to look backwards and another saying it should look forwards.

All three agreed the Democratic Party of Japan had a long way to go before it could regain voters' confidence after a haphazard three years in charge until December 2012. But they insisted a viable alternative to powerful Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was vital.

"We must change the culture of the DPJ," said Mr Goshi Hosono, a 43-year-old former minister, at one time charged with dealing with the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. "As long as we are like this (ill-disciplined), we are not fit to return to the government."

The party appeared to offer a fresh start for Japan when it was elected to government in 2009, interrupting more than half a century of almost unbroken rule by Mr Abe's Liberal Democratic Party. But its three-year stint, which burned through as many prime ministers, was characterised by policy mis-steps and diplomatic fluffs that left voters disillusioned, and saw the DPJ suffer a devastating defeat in the 2012 poll.

Another miserable performance in last month's general election cost then leader Banri Kaieda his job.

Commentators said Mr Abe's landslide win was less about fulsome endorsement of his policies than an absence of credible alternatives.

Mr Hosono is one of the two favourites to win the poll, in which grass roots party supporters will have the chance to vote. He is level pegging with Mr Katsuya Okada, 61, a Harvard-trained former deputy prime minister, known for his policy knowledge and strict self-discipline.

Mr Hosono on Thursday stressed the need for the party to "reset" itself and leave behind its ill-fated past, Mr Okada reiterated the party's reformist roots and its pragmatism, and pledged to work with the ruling party on issues they can agree on.

Mr Okada argued for a heavier tax burden for the wealthy and more safety nets for the poor and for families with small children.

The third-place candidate is Mr Akira Nagatsuma, 54, who wants to refashion Japan's creaking public pension system.