Amid the destruction and nuclear crisis caused by the March 11 tsunami, there is a joke making the rounds in Japan: President Obama telephones Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister… and asks to speak to his spokesman, Yukio Edano.
The joke reflects a widespread feeling that Prime Minister Kan has slipped into the background – he has made just three public addresses since the disaster – while Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano has become the government’s public face in the midst of Japan’s worst crisis since World War II.
Two weeks after an earthquake and tsunami laid waste to large parts of Japan’s northeastern coastline, opinion is divided over Mr. Kan’s handling of the relief effort and the nuclear emergency at Fukushima Daiichi power plant. According to a survey by Kyodo news agency this weekend, 58 percent of respondents said they did not approve of the government's handling of the nuclear plant crisis. Still, 58 percent said they did approve of the government's overall disaster-victim support in northeastern Japan.
But Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, says few people are looking to Kan for inspiration, preferring him to address myriad problems facing the country away from the media glare.
“The Japanese people aren’t really looking to him for inspiration or to make rousing speeches, but to get on with relief and reconstruction and resolve the nuclear crisis,” Mr. Nakano says.
Nakano shares a widely held view that no political leader could have prepared for the magnitude of the disaster. “These are not ordinary times. People aren’t interested in politics right now, only in rebuilding their lives and securing food and water. Kan’s not doing a perfect job, but I can’t think of a single person who would have done better. This is a terribly difficult and messy situation.”
Newspapers refrain from criticism
Newspaper editorials have called for a coordinated political response to the crisis but have so far refrained from criticizing Kan, who issued a plea for national unity at a rare press conference on March 25.
The opposition’s promise to put aside partisan politics only stretches so far, however, as Kan discovered. The Liberal Democratic party leader, Sadakazu Tanigaki, turned down an invitation to become part of a grand coalition.
Kan had hoped to bring opposition politicians into an expanded cabinet and secure smooth passage for additional spending on relief and reconstruction.
But a senior Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) official told the Yomiuri Shimbun news outlet that Mr. Tanigaki feared guilt by association should the situation at the Fukushima plant deteriorate. "The prime minister may pass the buck to us,” the unnamed official said.
Instead, Kan has appointed Sumio Mabuchi, a former transport minister, as a special adviser on the nuclear crisis, as well as bringing Yoshito Sengoku, a former chief cabinet secretary, as Edano's deputy.
While Kan focuses on attempts to avert a major nuclear accident, the death toll from the tsunami rose to over 10,000 over the weekend, adding to frustration that the relief effort is not being given enough attention by Kan's government.
“The government has to tackle these problems concurrently,” the Yomiuri editorial said. “[Kan and Edano] are taking all the work upon themselves, but they are too busy dealing with the nuclear accident to handle other issues and have become trapped in a vicious cycle.”
As government officials fend off accusations that information about radiation levels in the area is taking too long to reach residents, the news that Japan reportedly turned down a US offer, made within hours of the tsunami, to help cool down the reactors, probably won't help boost public perception.
Compared with predecessors
Still, Kan compares favorably with Tomiichi Murayama, who was prime minister when an earthquake killed 6,400 people in the western port city of Kobe in January 1995. While Kan quickly mobilized tens of thousands of self-defense force personnel, Prime Minister Murayama was widely perceived as having dithered as people lay dying beneath the rubble.
By the standards of his predecessors – perhaps with the exception of Junichiro Koizumi in his prime – Kan has used the kind of emotive language more often associated with US presidents on his few public appearances since the tsunami.
"We do not have time for pessimism,” he said recently. “We will rebuild Japan from scratch.
“We are in a situation that is testing us as a nation,” he added, and called on people to show the same unity and determination that had helped them “miraculously” recover after defeat in the war. “With the power of the people, we will rebuild this country."
It is easy to forget that just more than two weeks ago, Kan was fighting for his political life after admitting he had received donations from a foreign source in breach of Japanese funding laws.
The parlous state of the economy and the inability of the country’s divided parliament to agree on how to tackle its huge public debt saw Kan’s popularity ratings sink to about 20 percent, the lowest since he became leader last summer.
Nakano believes Kan would be foolish to ignore urgent policy issues – the budget, tax, and social security reform among them – that have been overshadowed by the tsunami and Fukushima.
For the moment, though, the scale of the challenges facing Japan has put a halt to the desire for political bloodletting that has seen four prime ministers resign since 2006.
“Whether or not Kan has succeeded in all of this will be determined by the outcome at the power plant,” says Nakano. “The doomsday scenario that some predicted has yet to materialize, so we just don’t know. It’s too premature to make a judgment."