TOKYO — Occasionally in the life of a nation, a politician stuns the citizenry by doing what many people believe is the right thing. Take Japan's Naoto Kan, a political maverick who acknowledged that the government ministry he now heads put thousands of Japanese in harm's way.
In the early '80s the Ministry of Health and Welfare declined to ban the use of unsterilized blood products. Such products were involved in the deaths of some 400 hemophiliacs; hundreds more are presumed to be at risk.
Since becoming Health and Welfare minister in January, Mr. Kan has ended years of bureaucratic stonewalling by apologizing to the hemophiliacs and their families and approving a system for compensation. Kan's exposure of the government's mistakes has made him a political hero in a country where voter apathy is reaching new heights.
The scandal ranks as one of the all-time low moments in the post-World War II history of the Japanese bureaucracy. Members of a highly educated and generally respected elite, the bureaucrats have long held the real power in government. The politicians appointed to run ministries and agencies tend not to have the expertise necessary to tell bureaucrats what to do.
Bureaucrats also have a hold over some politicians, because they can act as intermediaries between their ministers and business leaders who are potential sources of campaign contributions.
"[Kan] wants to fight the bureaucracy - that's a different motivation from the members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and other parties," says Yasunori Sone, a professor at Tokyo's Keio University. The ruling coalition headed by the LDP includes Kan's tiny New Harbinger Party.
At a time when many political leaders have been trying to style themselves as outsiders and new leaders, Kan seems genuinely independent. He has never belonged to any of the parties in Japan's political mainstream and obtained his post apparently by a quirk of coalition politics.
It's too soon to tell whether the type of leadership shown by Kan will inspire other politicians to emulate him. But judging from opinion polls and commentaries in the press, it is clear the Kan and another maverick - Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, who has led his prefecture's drive to reduce the US military presence there - have become the two most credible politicians in the country.
Parliament member Yukio Edano, also of the Harbinger party, warns that Kan risks marginalizing himself by becoming too much of a political "heretic." On the other hand, he says, "the people want Kan to do more."
Long active in citizens' groups and protest movements, Kan has cultivated a politically sophisticated and progressive constituency in suburban Tokyo, which has elected him to parliament since 1980. Mr. Sone, who has known Kan for 25 years, says his campaigns are staffed by "students and housewives" and financed by individual donations, not large contributions from companies, the traditional source of political money.
Another long-time Kan associate, a Tokyo-based activist named Masaru Kataoka, says Kan is onto something bigger than just cultivating enlightened grass-roots support. He "is the first politician to recognize the paradigm shift" away from a society focused on economic output, says Mr. Kataoka, who runs a citizen's bank and other nonprofit projects.
Kan understands, he continues, that most Japanese now want a society that cares more for its citizens and places more emphasis on issues like the environment and human rights. The minister himself declined to be interviewed for this story.
Kan has certainly appeared to demonstrate care for the people injured by the Health and Welfare Ministry. Makoto Ichihara, a hemophiliac, was in the hospital when the minister gave his apology on Feb. 16, so he watched the scene on television. At first he couldn't be sure that what he was seeing was real, recalled Mr. Ichihara, who asked that his real name not be used.
Acknowledging the government's failure to stop the use of unsafe blood products, Kan said, "I apologize for inflicting serious damage to people who have no reason to suffer."
Kan's words were satisfying to Ichihara, even though the memory of those who have died without hearing them left him with an "empty feeling," he said. "After Mr. Kan apologized," Ichihara added, "people clearly understood that the ministry was responsible."
Kan has released ministry documents demonstrating that officials declined to use sterilized blood products in the early 1980s, amid growing concern that some unsterilized products imported from the US were contaminated with HIV, the virus said to cause AIDS. Experts say the continued use of imported unsterilized blood products put thousands of hemophiliacs and other Japanese at risk.
A ministry document dated July 4, 1983 recommended the approval of sterilized blood products, but later that month officials decided against that course of action. The ministry did not approve the use of sterilized blood products until the second half of 1985.
The officials involved have yet to provide a detailed explanation for their decisions. But many Japanese believe that the officials were trying to protect the Japanese companies engaged in the import and sale of blood products.
Kan's response to the blood scandal has been impressive to many Japanese, but he has not acted in a vacuum. A key figure is a young man named Ryuhei Kawada, who has openly acknowledged that he contracted HIV from the unsterilized blood products.
Mr. Kawada is an exception - hardly any of the hemophiliacs or their families have gone public, wanting to avoid the shame associated with HIV and AIDS in Japan - and his actions have galvanized popular anger toward the ministry, particularly among young people.
Kan has also benefited from the court cases that Kawada, Ichihara, and hundreds of others have filed against the ministry and companies that sold unsterilized blood. Judges presiding over these cases had urged the ministry to settle, creating another source of pressure that analysts say may have made it easier for Kan to apologize.
Indeed, Kan later approved a settlement of the cases that provides financial compensation and other benefits to those injured by the ministry's decisions.