By Leika Kihara
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's next prime minister Yoshihiko Noda compares himself to a eel-like fish and admits his looks won't get him anywhere in popularity contests, but many say his calm and expertise are exactly what the nation needs at a time of crisis.
Noda, until now finance minister in Prime Minister Naoto Kan's cabinet, will take over as Japan's sixth leader in five years as the nation grapples with the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and a meltdown at a nuclear power station.
The 54-year-old judo practitioner is considered a safe pair of hands and a stabilizing influence after Kan's sometimes erratic and divisive rule.
But doubts run deep about whether the advocate of fiscal responsibility and tax increases to contain Japan's bulging debt can overcome a divided parliament and deep rifts in his own party sufficiently to tackle a long list of economic ills.
"He seems to be the safest choice, and I mean this in a good way. There seems to be a continuation in policy as he served as finance minister," said Tomomichi Akuta, senior energy researcher at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting in Tokyo.
"I also think that unlike his predecessor he is unlikely to make statements off the top of his head, which should give a sense of stability."
Some commentators say Japan needs a maverick like Junichiro Koizumi, the last premier to serve a full term in 2001-2006, to jolt Japan out of decades of stagnation and political paralysis.
Others say, however, someone like Noda, modest, calm and with few enemies, has a better chance to achieve something in a divided parliament than a charismatic figure.
Already before Monday's leadership vote Noda had called for a grand coalition with the main opposition parties to break the parliamentary deadlock.
"Noda is the kind of politician who presses things forward while maintaining good communication with the opposition camp," said Kazuhisa Kawakami, political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University.
Noda also struck a conciliatory note to rivals within his party. "I have said 'let us end the politics of resentment,'" he told reporters after the vote.
Noda's victory will no doubt be greeted with relief by the Bank of Japan. While all other candidates called for the central bank to buy more government bonds or print money to finance post-disaster rebuilding, Noda refrained from making demands for specific action and respected the BOJ's independence.
A fan of pro-wrestling, Noda has projected an image of a straight shooter, saying he is not good at playing "underhand tricks" in politics.
Ahead of the leadership vote, the stocky lawmaker compared himself to a "dojo" loach fish -- an eel-like inhabitant of the deep -- and offered this self-deprecating assessment of his qualities:
"I do look like this and if I become prime minister, the support rate would not rise, so I would not call a snap election. A loach has its own abilities even though it cannot do as a goldfish does."
Noda's background may have something to do with his good standing among fellow politicians.
In contrast to many lawmakers who are second- or third-generation politicians, Noda's father was in the military.
But like many of Japan's leaders, he graduated from the Matsushita Institute for Government and Business, created by Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita to groom future political and business elites.
In a sign he is willing to forge compromises, Noda has already softened his stance on sales tax increases. He said after Monday's election that "the impact on the economy" needed to be taken into account in deciding when and which taxes to raise.
One thing, however, is unlikely to change - Tokyo's policy on the yen's strength, which threatens exports.
As finance minister, Noda oversaw two bouts of unilateral currency intervention and negotiated one G7 joint intervention after the March quake, so Tokyo is unlikely to hesitate to step into markets again under Prime Minister Noda.
Some commentators point out Noda's lack of public appeal and recognition abroad as a handicap. Others take a different tack.
"Just because the world hasn't heard of him doesn't mean he doesn't command quiet respect," said Andrew Horvat, director of the Stanford Japan Center in Kyoto.
"That is one of the qualities of great Japanese leaders - not charisma."
(Additional reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto, Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and..)