Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Rehabilitation Of Kan

With the one year anniversary of 3/11 fast approaching, the reviews and reassessments of the crazed first few hours, days and weeks after the triple disaster have been coming in over the transom at a predictable yet indigestible rate. So much material is being released, so many seminars and commemorative events are being held that the mind can absorb only a fraction of the information bombarding it.

Nevertheless, from amidst the cacophony, one muffled truth of the catastrophe is at last being heard clearly: Prime Minister Kan Naoto performed his job up to what were the limits of what was humanly possible and kept focused on the important, whilst almost everyone around him lost his or her heads.

As of last week, the domestic news media was still failing to appreciate how it was taken in by its sources in the power industry and the national bureaucracy in campaigning against Kan's leadership during the crisis. As if reading from the same script, the papers and the broadcast media all claimed on Monday last week that a 400 page report (an English précis by the group's leader Funabashi Yoichi can be found here) by the Rebuild Japan Initiative (Nihon saiken inishiateibu) would offer incontrovertible proof that Kan's micromanagement and intrusion into so many aspects of the crisis, particularly the attempts to control the mushrooming disaster at the Fukushima Dai'ichi plant, contributed to confusion and bad decision making.

However, in the release of the report and in the press conference by the co-authors, the exact opposite was shown to be true. Kan's intense involvement and refusal, after the power company representatives and the bureaucracy failed him, to take anything being told to him at face value, turned out to be at worst unimportant and at best crucial for mitigating the catastrophe. What complaints there were about Kan's intensity came from bureaucrats who were dumbfounded that this damned politician was doing their jobs and appointing civilian advisers to aid him. That he had to do their jobs or appoint others to do them because they themselves were not doing them did not, according to the media's quotes from the report, ever cross the bureaucrats' minds.

The rehabilitation of Kan's reputation is being led, as was the investigation in the Olympus scandal, by outsiders, both domestic and foreign. The mainstream is still caught up in its own master narrative, that the Kan Cabinet's disaster response was a failure and Kan a self-deluded meddler. Some organizations are beginning to grasp how thoroughly they were led astray by their sources (J). Others are doubling down (J), committed to their narrative and their prejudices.

Since I myself have a reputation to protect -- of being one prone to extreme statements -- put me down as nominating Kan Naoto as Japan's greatest prime minister since Yoshida Shigeru. With little public support for his cabinet, the upper echelons of the national bureaucracy inert to the point of malfeasance, an opposition that only three weeks after the disaster was accusing him in Diet committee of having caused the explosions at Fukushima Dai'ichi and a pair of quislings in his party who came within centimeters of leading their followers into joining hands with the opposition in a no-confidence motion against his cabinet, he oversaw the largest ever mobilization of the Self Defense Forces, the most massive disaster rescue and relief operation in the country's history, the greatest evacuation, housing and resettlement operation of the postwar era and the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl -- and when he had no political allies or capital left, leveraged his resignation into a means of extorting from his many enemies the passage of three last vital pieces of legislation. (E)

Nakasone Yasuhiro and Koizumi Jun'ichiro retired from the scene with golden halos. Kan had to spin straw into gold -- and having done it, received not a thimbleful of credit for it.


Ἀντισθένης said...

I was in Japan during the tainted blood crisis in the 90s, and during the Fukushima incident. Kan made both get addressed against the wishes of the bureaucracy, the amakudari and 'fellow travelers'. I never accepted the criticisms of him from any quarter as anything but naked self-interest.

A real man does what is right, no matter how much he stands to lose. God help Japan in its next crisis without him.

sigma1 said...

The importance of the FIT bill that was "extorted" (which still has some problems to be sure) has yet to be understood. But I would be surprised if it did not have significant national security and economic benefits in years to come.

Michael Penn said...

Yes and no. I like Kan, but this account is unbalanced. He failed to go to the public at a time they were waiting for leadership. The Emperor was out there consoling the people while Kan was hidden from sight for weeks. This was his key failure that helps explain those low public approval ratings. Also, considering the Kan administration's reversal of almost every policy the DPJ campaigned on in 2009, I'd say Ozawa and Hatoyama have an at least equal claim to calling Kan the quisling.

But I do agree with your basic point that Kan was underrated in some respects. I also expect him to be one of the best "ex-prime ministers" that Japan has seen in a long time.

panÓptiko said...

Totally agree. It's been difficult to find accounts like this in other media. Not only a real shame, but also a democratic failure.

Michael's comment is a little perplexing. On the one hands accuses Kan of not consoling the victims, and in the other recognizes he was not supported by the public. I think this conception of what "leadership" is during an emergency is the problem.


PfromG said...

Although I don't agree with it, Michael's criticism is interesting. Why fans of Kan appreciate the way he acted is precisely because he wasn't just doing what was required to increase his poll ratings but was instead trying to do what was genuinely important. To note that Kan's poll ratings would have been higher if he'd shaken more hands, made rousing Koizumiesque speeches and spent more time on TV is probably true. But it's the fact that he didn't do the pointless but popular, but focussed on the difficult, self-sacrificing and important stuff that is belatedly winning people over (now it's too late).