Argument

Kan Do?

Japan's embattled prime minister learns to lead.

TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images
TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

In the days before the devastating earthquake and tsunami that has killed at least 10,000, left hundreds of thousands homeless, and had the world holding its breath as workers struggled to control a failing nuclear power plant, Japan faced a crisis of a different, more mundane sort. Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister, appeared to be facing his final days in office. Four days before the earthquake, Seiji Maehara, his foreign minister, the most popular member of his cabinet, and the man many expected to succeed Kan sooner or later, resigned after reports surfaced that he had accepted donations from a long-term Korean resident of Japan in violation of campaign finance laws and the day before the earthquake, reports surfaced that Kan too had received donations from resident Koreans. The prime minister’s political future was being measured in weeks, if not days.

The crisis has changed all that. Kan himself has not been altogether inspiring during the crisis — at least compared with Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, who became the face of the government as he worked tirelessly to keep the public informed (and inspired a campaign on Twitter encouraging him to get some sleep). But his government on the whole performed well given the sheer difficulties it faced after the initial disaster: the situation at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, still unresolved as of this writing; the humanitarian relief mission complicated by snowy conditions and hoarding by citizens in Tokyo alarmed by the uncertain nuclear situation; and a sharp increase in the value of the yen combined with a steep drop in share prices at the Tokyo Stock Exchange in the first days of trading after the disaster. Kan moved quickly on the humanitarian relief side, dispatching a 100,000-strong contingent of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) — nearly half the country’s military personnel — to the stricken region to rescue citizens and deliver relief, and mobilizing the SDF’s reserves for the first time. His government quickly accepted the assistance of the United States, which directed warships to Japanese waters and deployed troops stationed in Japan, including helicopters from the controversial Futenma Marine air station on Okinawa, to assist with humanitarian relief.

While its crisis management has been far from flawless — critics have complained of everything from poor communication with the public to confusion regarding rolling blackouts to over-reliance on the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to solve the nuclear crisis — compared with Japan’s poor performance in response to the 1995 earthquake in the city of Kobe, the Kan government’s initial response was decisive. Its response was even more impressive given that in its first year and a half in power, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) faced nothing even remotely close to a crisis of this magnitude, described by the prime minster as the most serious faced by Japan since World War II. While it is too early to render a final verdict, particularly as fears rise over contaminated food supplies, it has so far managed to juggle the many challenges of the first week after the earthquake without becoming wholly overwhelmed.

As for Kan’s individual performance, the public is ambivalent. His pronouncements have struck the right tone, but they have been infrequent and the prime minister has been overshadowed by Edano, his spokesman. The Japanese people’s reaction has been mixed: The first public opinion poll saw the government’s approval rise by more than 10 points, but a slight majority also disapproved of the government’s handling of the Fukushima crisis.

But for the time being, Kan and the DPJ are here to stay. The challenges of reconstruction make it unlikely that the DPJ will change leaders again, and the country is in no condition to hold the snap election that the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had hoped to force the government to call. The political stalemate — with the opposition in control of the upper house, the legislative process had ground to a halt as opposition parties refused to fund the government’s budget for fiscal 2011 — has eased somewhat, not least because the opposition has little choice but to rally around the flag and stand with the government. It now seems likely that the Kan government will get its way on the budget, which needs to be finalized by the start of the new fiscal year on April 1.

Recognizing his government’s shortcomings in crisis management and internal coordination, Kan has tried to bolster his ability to govern. He used the crisis to bring Yoshito Sengoku, a capable manager who was hounded from office by the opposition over his alleged mismanagement of last year’s diplomatic crisis with China, back into government to head the disaster response. Meanwhile, to facilitate cooperation with the opposition, Kan asked LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki to join the cabinet as a deputy prime minister. Although Tanigaki declined, the public is unlikely to accept a return to the bickering that characterized pre-quake politics.

The tasks facing Japan in the near term are straightforward. The government and opposition parties will have to hammer out a plan for rebuilding the devastated north and minimizing the long-term damage to the national economy. Undoubtedly, the parties will also conduct a post-mortem on the nuclear crisis, reviewing what went wrong — especially in the relationship between the government and TEPCO, which operates the Fukushima plant — and considering stronger regulations for the nuclear power industry.

At some point, however, politics will return to normal, perhaps sooner rather than later. Nationwide local elections are scheduled for next month, except in disaster-stricken areas, where they will be postponed up to six months. But what will "normal" mean after the quake? When it comes to how the Japanese political system will function, there are still more questions than answers.

The first is, can Kan last? Given that the prime minister did not exactly rise to the occasion — while not striking out either — it is still an open question whether Kan will serve out his two-year term as DPJ leader, which will expire in September 2012. Before the crisis not only was Kan facing accusations of impropriety — he was losing his grip on his own party, as DPJ parliamentarians openly declared their opposition to the government’s proposals. While Kan is probably safe for the reconstruction period, the DPJ may still look to replace him with someone more popular before the general election that must be held by 2013.

More important than the fate of the prime minister is the impact of the crisis on the DPJ. Has dealing with a major crisis taught it to lead? In its first year and a half in office, the novice ruling party has struggled to articulate an agenda and communicate its policies to a frustrated and weary public. Reviving its fortunes over the longer term will require the DPJ to make some hard decisions and defend them vigorously — not the party’s strong suit thus far. Having been tested by crisis, will the DPJ be more willing to take risks, more adept at managing the government, and more capable at explaining what it wants to accomplish? In at least one sense, the DPJ should have an easier time of governing going forward: Before the crisis, the DPJ had been paralyzed by internal squabbling over whether to revise its 2009 election manifesto in light of Japan’s parlous finances. Now, facing the enormous task of rebuilding, the DPJ will have little choice but to scrap some of its campaign promises.

Another important question is whether the opposition will be more cooperative. After losing control of the upper house last summer, the DPJ government became a de facto minority government despite its large majority in the lower house. Now the DPJ and the opposition Liberal Democrats and Komeito party have been forced to cooperate as they consider how to recover from the disaster. But what will the next phase be? Will there be a return to confrontational politics? Will the LDP or Komeito emerge from the crisis chastened and willing to participate in developing a national agenda beyond reconstruction? Or will they see more political advantage in obstructing Kan?

The biggest question of all is whether the crisis becomes a turning point in how Japan is governed. The Japanese political system — with five prime ministers in as many years, leading politicians dogged by scandal, a disappointing change in ruling party, indecisive leadership, and ongoing economic decline — appeared to have reached a nadir. Japanese leaders have often seemed paralyzed in the face of demographic decline, persistent deflation, and massive and growing government debt. But amid a horrible disaster, if a more forward-looking, confident Japan emerges to meet its many challenges head on, then perhaps some good will come of this tragedy.

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