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Naoto Kan: Big Test for an Unpopular Premier


Japan's Prime Minister surprises his critics as he dispatches troops, works with the opposition, and comes across as a leader

Until the Mar. 11 earthquake and tsunami, Prime Minister Naoto Kan looked like another casualty of Japan's unending political strife. His approval rating was down to less than 20 percent. His attempts to rein in the deficit were stymied in Parliament. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party had him in its sites: The LDP had already forced out one of his ministers as a result of a minor campaign funding scandal, and Kan, 64, appeared marked for the same fate. A sad end seemed inevitable for the onetime reformer who had inspired hope in the 1990s with bold talk of a new political system.

Overnight Kan has gone from tired politician to something resembling a leader. He has mobilized 100,000 troops and pledged an emergency-spending package. Kan has even welcomed foreign aid, in contrast to Japan's initial rebuff of help after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. And he has hit the right rhetorical notes. "Our country faces its worst crisis since the end of the war 65 years ago," an emotional Kan said on Mar. 13 on national TV. "I am convinced that working together with all our might, the Japanese people can overcome this." Ordinary Japanese liked the tone of that speech. "There was almost no content in what Kan said, but it was clear he was suffering along with everyone else," says Jiro Dai, a Tokyo office worker. "That made a profound impression on me."

Kan's performance so far is "light-years better" than the response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake, says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus. He "has shown the public a resolute and compassionate leader." Kingston adds, however, that "the nuclear fallout could turn political if all assurances turn out to be wishful thinking."

It will be hard for Kan to emerge victorious, despite his good start. Kan's government has not been in sync with other players in the drama, especially Tokyo Electric Power, which runs the nuclear reactors hit so hard by the tsunami. This disconnect has left many Japanese confused and scared.

Throughout his career, Kan has favored more transparency in public policy. As health minister in 1996, he forced bureaucrats to release documents exposing their role in allowing as many as 5,000 Japanese to contract HIV through contaminated blood products. When he became finance minister in 2010, a post he held for six months, Kan vowed more openness in Japan's most powerful ministry. "I think we've gotten more information out of the Kan administration than you would have out of a U.S. administration or a British administration or a French administration, partly because they're new at it," says Steven R. Reed, a political science professor at Chuo University in Tokyo.

The Prime Minister has gotten crucial help from his chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, who has followed Kan from the creation of the Democratic Party of Japan in 1993 to the DPJ's ascent to power 18 months ago. Edano, 46, has held an average of five televised briefings a day since the quake and tsunami hit. Wearing the same type of blue emergency jumpsuit as Kan, Edano provides details on radiation levels, evacuation orders, and recovery efforts. The Prime Minister makes one public appearance a day, usually appealing for calm and expressing his conviction that Japan can overcome this disaster as it did the devastation from the war.

Edano has cut his own figure. On Twitter, some Japanese have even urged him to get some sleep. "He is truly giving everything he can as the government's spokesman," says independent political analyst Hirotada Asakawa in Tokyo. "Whenever the post-Kan era begins, he'll be a candidate to replace him."

Kan still has a window of opportunity to revive his premiership. "This is Kan's Katrina moment," says Jun Okumura, a consultant at the Eurasia Group risk consulting firm in Tokyo and a former Japanese trade official. The Premier has weeks to show "he's not such a poor leader after all. The thing going for him now is that the opposition can't be in opposition."

Kan has pledged an extra spending package to rebuild the country that has won the support of the LDP. Sadakazu Tanigaki, leader of the LDP, says as much as 5 trillion yen ($62 billion) in post-quake funding will be needed and his party "will cooperate with all our might." Tanigaki has even called for a temporary tax to pay for relief efforts, a proposal that Edano says "can't be ruled out."

The bottom line: Prime Minister Naoto Kan has shown early leadership in Japan's crisis, but his standing with the Japanese is not strong.

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Brinsley is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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