The Irritable Prime Minister Japanese Leader Shunned for Western-Style Crisis Management

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has adopted a Western approach to solving his country's deep crisis. In doing so, he is violating Japan's traditional rules -- and putting his credibility on the line.



For three weeks, the man who is expected to save the country stopped wearing suits, preferring instead to appear in public in freshly starched blue overalls. Even today, the hands he used to open widely like a preacher during speeches can often be seen clenched into fists. His smile has disappeared, and the more grimly determined he looks as he gazes into the television cameras, the more anxious his fellow Japanese become about the future.

Naoto Kan, 64, is Japan's fifth prime minister in five years. He is also just the fifth prime minister since 1955 who is not a member of the powerful Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been in power for most of its 54 years in existence. But Japan is unlikely to forget Kan, as they have many of his predecessors.

If it hadn't been for the disaster in Fukushima, Kan would probably no longer be in office. On the morning of March 11, he was forced to admit before parliament that he had accepted illegal political donations. But that afternoon, a powerful earthquake struck northeastern Japan. The ensuing tsunami flushed a crisis of overwhelming proportions into Kan's court, providing him with a second chance as a politician.

The only problem is that Naoto Kan has remained Naoto Kan, a type of politician whose leadership style doesn't seem right for Japan.

Kan is trying to govern Japan with the top-down leadership style of an American president. In June 2010, he campaigned on a platform of "resurrecting a powerful Japan." He told his people that he intended to double the sales tax rate to rein in the country's massive debt.

Avoiding Humiliation

The results of his announcements were soon apparent. His Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) promptly lost its majority in the July 2010 election for the upper house of the Japanese legislature, and Kan became a "lame duck."

Then Fukushima happened, and now Kan is trying to do everything right. But instead of using Japanese role models to approach the crisis, he seems to be doing everything he can to avoid the humiliation that then US President George W. Bush suffered after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

On the morning after the tsunami, Kan donned Japanese military fatigues, boarded a military helicopter and was flown over the devastated northeast Japanese coast to the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.

He was photographed gazing seriously and silently out of the helicopter, seemingly mimicking statesmen in the West. For many of his fellow Japanese, the photo disqualified Kan as a crisis manager.

The opposition and most Japanese media organizations accuse the prime minister of having delivered a pathetic and thoroughly un-Japanese solo "performance," a word so alien to the island people that there is no equivalent in Japanese, except the Japanese version of the English word: "pafoomansu."

In a country where everyone learns from an early age to be modest and conform, Kan's performance violated social norms. He was even accused of having hindered efforts to save the nuclear power plant with his helicopter outing. To protect the premier from radiation, the plant's operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), allegedly postponed a steam release from one of the overheated reactors -- far too long, say critics, to prevent the explosion that destroyed the building surrounding Reactor Unit 1 soon afterwards.

A Metaphor of Crisis

Kan rejected such criticism in a speech to the Japanese parliament last Thursday. But words fade away, while the photo of Kan sitting in a helicopter endures. For many Japanese, it depicts a politician who is jeopardizing the enormous national effort by diverting energy into Western-style political theater. Kan's photo became, as it were, the metaphor of a natural disaster that is growing into a political crisis. All the while, Japan's citizens, used to a highly regulated, high-tech environment, are forced to look on as radioactivity from Fukushima continues to spread -- radioactivity which will likely be around for years to come.

The Japanese have, however, been impressed by the desperate battle being waged by the more than 400 technicians and workers on the grounds of the stricken nuclear facility. They admire the dedication of the roughly 100,000 soldiers working in the areas devastated by the tsunami. The members of the country's military, known as the Japan Self-Defense Forces, had never been particularly popular among their fellow Japanese. With its pacifist constitution of 1946, the country had fundamentally distanced itself from anything that was even remotely related to war and the military.

But now the soldiers are bringing food to towns and villages where private truck drivers no longer dare to go. They are building temporary bathing facilities where local residents living in the often unheated emergency shelters can bathe and warm themselves. And they are searching for the dead and burying the bodies with as much dignity as possible under the conditions.

Compared with these heroes, the crisis managers in Tokyo often look like failures. Although they are keeping up appearances, which includes bowing and begging for forgiveness, it is impossible to ignore their many mistakes.

Organizational Chaos

If there is a second face to Japan's crisis of confidence, in addition to Prime Minister Kan, it is that of Masataka Shimizu, 66. The president of TEPCO has only appeared before the press once since the beginning of the reactor disaster, and then it was already 29 hours after the first explosion. During that press conference, he did not address the reactor disaster itself or the organizational chaos at TEPCO.

After that, the head of TEPCO disappeared for a few days, leading to media speculation that he might have committed suicide. In the end, TEPCO sheepishly admitted that Shimizu was ill. When he checked into a hospital last Wednesday, the company issued a statement saying that he suffered from high blood pressure and dizzy spells.

Perhaps Shimizu is truly ill. But he has come to symbolize an elite of Japanese business leaders and bureaucrats who would prefer to see their premier continue fighting the fight on his own, like some lone general on a hill.

The bureaucracy, after all, has a score to settle with Kan and his Democratic Party. In the fall of 2009, after the DPJ had unseated the LDP, the new government announced that it intended to implement a new style of "political leadership."

Until then, politicians had left the business of governing up to the bureaucrats. Japan had developed into a country that more or less functioned on autopilot, with the politicians merely dictating the general direction. But now Kan's party had begun to meddle in details considered by the bureaucrats to be their affairs. Even worse, they began to question the bureaucrats' privileges. They did away with, for example, a practice that had allowed retiring civil servants to switch to lucrative positions with companies fully or partly owned by the government -- a move known as a descent from heaven (amakudari).

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daikon 04/06/2011
1. Kan is popular with many
I'm American, and I live near Tokyo, and judging by what I hear from friends and neighbors, Kan is fairly popular, and his anger expressed at the management of TEPCO was highly regarded and thought to be effective by many though by no means all people. Kan has many critics but also many fans and semi-fans. This article seems "Orientalistic" to a certain extent because it tries to essentialize all the Japanese people into a single whole -- a way of thinking that was once popular with fascists and nationalists but one that should not be given new life by contemporary journalists. Many of the criticisms of Kan listed in this article seem to be recycled from politicians and social critics with a conservative or a pro-big-business ideology. Perhaps the writer should have a wider circle of contacts and talk more with ordinary people, especially young people, who are the future of Japan. If the writer got out more, I'm sure the writer would find that some people are critical of Kan but that others are mildly or very supportive. On the radio and TV here in Japan I often hear comments praising Kan's courage and speculating that the government response would probably have been much worse if the old LDP conservatives were still in power, since they were the ones who created the "revolving door" between government agencies and private business that made possible the lax oversight and poor regulation of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Kan has had no connection with this ingrown government-big business culture, so he feels free to make incisive criticisms of TEPCO and step on a lot of toes. Of course he's improvising most of the time, since there is no precedent for what happened in Fukushima, but my impression is that for his critics Kan can do nothing right, but that many Japanese who criticize his imperfect response do so because they want him to cut through the taboos created by the old government-big business alliance even more decisively than he has done so far. I hope the full spectrum of opinion in Japan is better reflected in future articles.
BTraven 04/06/2011
I have to admit that I had been quite impressed when he was greeted by some engineers at the power plant. Bush shunned visiting New Orleans. It was a big mistake not to come. At least Kan showed courage when others would have preferred staying as far away as possible from the wrecked plant in order not to get a dangerous radioactive dose.
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