AP – Just about two weeks ago, in a seemingly distant time, Japan’s Naoto Kan appeared a doomed leader in need of a miracle to keep his job.
He got a catastrophe instead.
Kan’s response to Japan’s earthquake and nuclear crisis may determine not only his future as prime minister but also his place in history. It is, of course, far too early to hand down a verdict. But some have an interim report card: adequate, not stellar.
There’s a growing feeling that – amid inevitable criticism – Kan deserves at least some credit for projecting the image of a functioning government amid a fast-moving crisis of near-unprecedented magnitude and complexity. He has also, in a fundamental break from past administrations, shown a relatively high degree of transparency.
“I’ll give him a passing grade,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “Honestly I don’t know whether this is currently a job that anyone can do to satisfy people.”
Set against some past disasters – such as Hurricane Katrina in the United States or Japan’s own Kobe earthquake in 1995 – Kan’s administration has so far at least had the merit of not coming across as catastrophically inept.
That may not sound like a ringing endorsement given what’s at stake, but people who study disasters say it may be the best that can be expected in dealing with the triple crisis of a magnitude-9.0 earthquake, a town-devouring tsunami and the ongoing threat of a nuclear plant meltdown.
“After a natural disaster, you always see rudderless leadership, with few exceptions, so I’m a little forgiving here,” said Robert Verchick, a disaster expert at Loyola University in New Orleans.
The Japanese people, while begrudging Kan a full embrace, appear to realize that the challenge is overwhelming, and may be starting to give his administration the benefit of the doubt.
The first major opinion poll taken since the quake struck on March 11 showed Kan, who faced a mutiny within his own party before the quake, enjoying a 8.4 percent bounce in his approval rating – still at a wretched 28.3 percent, but a significant improvement.
The Kyodo News Agency poll surveyed 1,011 randomly selected eligible voters by telephone on Saturday and Sunday. It did not give a margin of error, but polls of that size would generally have a margin of error of about 4 percentage points.
A total of 57.9 percent of people asked backed Kan’s handling of earthquake and tsunami relief, while 39.3 percent approved of his leadership in the nuclear crisis.
Not great. But not abysmal either.
“He’s doing so-so, I guess, better than past governments,” said company worker Kenji Nakamura. “There was the unforeseeable factor of the nuclear plant, and he seems to be dealing with that.”
Some experts do fault Kan for not taking faster and more decisive action, and being notably absent from the public eye.
Kan has only held two news conferences since the crisis began. In the first, he scored strong points by making a stirring appeal for unity and declaring he would risk his life to see Japan through the crisis. In the second, he appeared exhausted and subdued – his hair disheveled and eyes bloodshot.
“In the early stages, he seemed to be trying to show leadership,” said Yoshinobu Yamamoto, a professor of international relations at Aoyama Gakuin University. “Since then, he hasn’t shown much leadership that really stands out.”
He said Kan could have acted with greater speed in trying to get relief to earthquake and tsunami zones. And he said Kan’s decision to wrest control of crisis management from Tokyo Electric Power Co. – a move that won him initial plaudits in the press – wasn’t enough.
“He should have nationalized TEPCO,” said Yamamoto, noting the company’s longtime habit of covering up nuclear accidents. “He’s only taking half-measures.”
Other analysts, however, have been impressed by the way Kan – and his right-hand man, Chief Cabinet Spokesman Yukio Edano – have kept cool in the face of considerable public and media heat.
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University, calls much of the criticism “overdone” – noting the government is dealing with a dizzying array of issues: “the earthquake, tsunami, and the nuclear problems, plus the fiscal, financial, economic, market, currency fallout.”
Kingston argues it’s unfair to accuse Kan of being soft on TEPCO. Compared to past governments that coddled big industry, he said, Kan has repeatedly taken the power company to task in a way that harkens back to the days when he uncovered an HIV-tainted blood scandal as health minister in the 1990s.
“What I liked was when he dressed down TEPCO publicly,” said Kingston.
“He was incensed. I think he spoke for the nation.”
Kan has also sought American help in dealing with the nuclear crisis, requesting U.S. military drones to fly over the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant for information gathering, and accepting offers of American military fire engines and freshwater to help douse radiation-spewing reactors.
Another big break from the past: an effort to share news – even terrifying news – with the public.
Kan has sent Edano before the cameras day and night to report on nuclear developments. Many say the unassuming Cabinet spokesman is emerging as the catastrophe’s real hero, as he responds to press onslaughts with sang-froid and apparent frankness.
That, coupled with Kan’s quickly mobilizing the military to deliver aid, has soothed a public haunted by what was widely seen as the government’s bungled response to the Kobe quake.
“Compared to the aftermath of the catastrophic Kobe earthquake of 1995, when the authorities appeared to wash their hands of the victims’ miseries, the difference could hardly be greater,” Karel Van Wolferen, the author of “The Enigma of Japanese Power,” said in a recent column.
Some have faulted Kan for the fact he has not yet visited evacuees in the quake zone. Others say he has to focus on the ongoing nuclear crisis.
“You can’t really please everybody either way,” said Sophia University’s Nakano. “Visiting the earthquake-tsunami areas would have perhaps satisfied some people, but I’m sure he would have received criticism for abandoning headquarters and touring around for political gain.”
But as long as Kan keeps his head and doesn’t make major mistakes, his hold on power appears safe for now as the country rallies together in tragedy.
Ironically, it’s when things start to look better that Kan may suddenly find himself vulnerable _ as unity gives way to political infighting.
“In a way, Kan will be a victim of his own success,” said Nakano.