Sunday, March 27, 2011

Kan unshaken by massive earthquake

It is premature to conclude the fate of Prime Minister Naoto Kan. The “March Crisis” that everyone predicted did not turn out quite as expected. For now, Kan has been strengthened by his management of the earthquake and tsunami. However, judgement of Kan’s competence is under keener scrutiny of the Japanese people. To an outsider the Prime Minister, Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano, and other aides have done a competent job in coping with the disaster.

The media have transmitted information from official sources and local sites with extraordinary skill, sensitivity, and thoroughness. As for the nuclear disaster, TEPCO’s briefings on TV have left much to be desired – NHK had to bring in a specialist afterwards to explain what the inarticulate and bumbling spokesman just said – but the workers at the scene risking their lives to contain the reactors, not to mention the teams of firefighters and SDF troops pumping water on the towers are true heroes.

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.

Following the 1995 earthquake, then Prime Minister Murayama received low marks for his handling the crisis, even reportedly rebuffing US offers of help. But this time, no such criticism seems warranted. Prime Minister Kan even urged the opposition to put aside differences and cooperate on an emergency fiscal package for the earthquake victims and localities, welcomed the assistance of the US forces in Japan and other foreign help, and oversaw a gradual restoration of normalcy in communications, transportation, and basic distribution in the broadly affected areas.

It may have seemed slow – a week is a long time when disaster strikes -- but by the week’s end, food and other supplies were coming into even the most badly affected areas. It will be a long process even before rebuilding starts, but people realize that, given the enormous scale of the devastation.

Even if Prime Minister Kan gets high marks for crisis management, he is not likely to regain his popularity for he carries too much baggage from the pre-earthquake months when his administration was rocked by scandals, policy failures, and a reputation of indecisiveness on key issues. It will take a lot for him for wipe away a prior history of policy mishandling. Many of these earlier problems remain to be resolved such as passing the budget-enabling bills, and of course resolving the Futenma base relocation issue. But at least Kan can rest assured that it will not be his handling of the Great Northern Japan Earthquake that will make or break his administration.

William Brooks
APP Senior Fellow

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