Japan's prime minister, Naoto Kan, center, was attending a parliament committee meeting in Tokyo when the quake struck.

Japan's prime minister, Naoto Kan, center, was attending a parliament committee meeting in Tokyo when the quake struck. (Source: Toru Hanai/Reuters)

The Great Tohoku Earthquake struck as Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, slid towards the political precipice. That the earthquake gave him a timely war-surge of support should come as no surprise: when the nation needs a leader, they’ll go with what they’ve got. However, as emergency turns to reconstruction, has Naoto Kan proven himself fit enough to stay on and preside over Japan’s largest post-war construction project?

Kan clearly seemed to have made the right choice in delegating responsibility for the public front to Yukio Edano, in whose tired face many found the comforting knowledge that the government was hard at work. As William Brooks at Asia Policy Point writes,

From the start, Kan took charge and the people knew it. He rightfully ceded spokeman’s responsibilities to Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano, who also played a low-key, but responsible role. He even brought in a seasoned aide, former chief cabinet secretary Sengoku, when it seemed that Edano was wearing himself out. Kan issued important statements on TV and showed the public that he was clearly the man issuing critical orders from the emergency headquarters set up to handle the disaster. He looked weary when he appeared in public, and even showed his short temper when dissatisfied. He reportedly was observed yelling at TEPCO officials for their poor dissemination of clear and consistent information to the public about the state of the nuclear plant. Unfortunately, he has yet to make personal tours of the disaster area.

However, this failure to get out to Tohoku, and Kan’s general lack of appearances makes him look cold and distant. Regardless of the fact that the Prime Minister’s Cabinet is designed to handle situations in such a segmented manner, it does few favours for Kan’s popularity.

While the response to the earthquake and tsunami have been swift and far-reaching, there is no question that the failures in Tohoku’s nuclear power plants (primarily, but not solely, Fukushima Dai-ichi) have complicated not only the emergency, but also political response. The failure to rein in TEPCO and the unending wave of bad news from Fukushima reflects poorly on the Kan government, regardless of their culpability. By supposedly threatening to penalize the Tokyo Fire Department firefighters at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant if they didn’t take part in operations there, Minister for the Economy, Trade and Industry Banri Kaieda is just one example of the administration’s failure to grapple with the problem in a compassionate yet effective manner, as well described by Nejibana at Twisting Flowers:

The Japanese media has started to question Kan’s handling of the crisis, in particular his alienation of TEPCO and the bureaucracy. Apparently, Kan’s main channels of communication with TEPCO are METI Minister Kaieda Banri and Special Assistant to the PM Hosono Goshi. Kan’s mistrust of TEPCO is understandable, given its secrecy and generally poor PR in the Fukushima nuclear crisis. There is likewise much wrong with the Japanese bureaucracy, especially the cozy ties between the nuclear watchdog agencies and the industry. However, it is incumbent on the Prime Minister to utilize the talent available to ensure that the government’s response to the crisis is as good as it gets. If TEPCO and the bureaucracy are unwilling to play ball, it is up to the PM to compel compliance, one way or the other. Shouting at TEPCO executives in front of the media does not convey a sense of control, even if it temporarily resonates with public frustration.

Yet it is important to remember that many of the faults in the response to the disaster lie in the structure of the political system, which the DPJ came into power through opposing, such as ministry-based, bottom-up policy-making, as Karel van Wolferen (The Enigma of Japanese Power) notes at Project Syndicate:

In 1995, Kobe citizens extricated from the rubble were looked after if they belonged to corporations or religious groups. Those who did not were expected to fend mostly for themselves. This reflected a ‘feudal’ like corporatist approach, in which the direct relationship between the citizen and the state played no role. This widely condemned governmental neglect of the Kobe earthquake victims was among the major sources of public indignation that helped popularize the reform movement from which Kan emerged.

Unfortunately, today’s Japanese media are overlooking that historical context. For example, the newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun recently lamented the shortcomings of the Kan government’s response, emphasizing the poor lines of command running from the cabinet to officials carrying out rescue and supply operations. But it failed to point out that the feebleness of such coordination, linked to an absence of cabinet-centered policymaking, was precisely the main weakness of Japan’s political system that the founders of the DPJ set out to overcome.

It is too early to say whether Kan will come out of this any better than he went in or whether he, like Murayama in 1995, will fall prey to the fog-of-war in, and complexity of, disaster management. With such little support when the quake struck, the latter seems most likely. It is unlikely an LDP prime minister could have done much better or worse, but it seems Kan’s failures could cross-over to his party. If Kan falls, the Democratic Party of Japan will have its work cut out for it to stay in power. Time will tell.

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch