For the record. I think the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. need to do more and be a lot more transparent in providing timely (close to real time) updates to the Japanese people and the world at large. Emphasis added.
As dangerous levels of radiation leaked from four crippled nuclear reactors in Japan’s earthquake-ravaged northeast Tuesday, Naoto Kan, the Prime Minister, stormed into an executive meeting of Tokyo Electric Power Co. and demanded to know, “What the hell is going on?”
According to the Kyodo news agency, whose reporter overheard the angry exchange, he was livid over hearing of Japan’s latest brush with nuclear catastrophe at the same time a panicked public was being told a third explosion at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had led to a dangerous leak spreading radioactive clouds as far south as Tokyo.
“The TV reported an explosion. But nothing was said to the Premier’s office for about an hour,” Mr. Kan fumed.
“What the hell is going on?”
Within hours, the Japanese PM had announced he was personally taking control of crisis management at Fukushima. He appointed a committee of government and TEPCO officials to report directly to him; had the transport ministry impose a no-fly zone for 30 kilometres around the badly damaged plant; and ordered Japan’s Self-Defence Forces to shift their attention to relief, instead of rescue.
Later, at a nationally televised news conference, where he spoke to reporters while dressed in a powder-blue emergency services jump-suit, Mr. Kan acknowledged the radiation peril and called for calm.
“There is a danger of even higher radiation levels,” he said.
“We are doing everything we can to contain the leakage. I know that people are very worried, but I would like to ask you to act calmly.”
For a brief moment there was a flash of explosive temper that brought Mr. Kan to political prominence nearly 20 years ago. He earned the nickname “Ira-Kan” (Irritable Kan) as a crusading health minister who blamed bureaucrats in his ministry for failing to prevent, then covering up, the use of HIV-tainted blood products in an AIDS scandal.
Over the years, however, he morphed into an uninspiring and relatively ineffective prime minister as he struggled unsuccessfully to unite a divided parliament and tackle the country’s economic stagnation.
Just hours before the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit last Friday, changing the face of Japan, Mr. Kan was fighting for his political life.
Opposition parties were pressing for him to resign or call a new election by refusing to pass a vital budget bill; 16 rebellious MPs in his party were lobbying for his removal as party leader; and a parliamentary committee was investigating claims he had committed a criminal offence by taking election donations from a non-Japanese.
On Friday morning, Mr. Kan told the committee he wasn’t about to resign, but admitted he had accepted $12,000 from a Korean businessman he thought was Japanese.
His Foreign Minister, Seiji Maehara, was forced to resign on March 6 for accepting a similar $3,000 donation from a Korean-barbecue-shop owner in Kyoto.
Mr. Kan appeared poised for ignominious failure. His public approval rating stood at a record low 20%.
That was before the earthquake and tsunami killed thousands, caused US$180-billion of destruction, pummeled the world’s third-largest economy, and threatened a major environmental and health crisis.
Now the Prime Minister has a chance to redeem himself by leading a people who have shown nothing but calm, quiet courage throughout their ordeal.
Despite some confusion and conflicting statements surrounding government attempts to control the rapidly evolving crisis, Mr. Kan has adopted a workman-like approach to trying to resolve Japan’s calamities.
Mr. Kan urged opposition MP to join him to “save the country;” ordered troops to conduct a massive rescue effort; and shut down high-risk nuclear plants and transport systems.
He also ordered the country’s central bank to pump more than US$184-billion into international money markets to cushion the economic fallout that still stripped Japan’s stock market of nearly 14% of its value.
After touring the tsunami- and earthquake-ravaged northeast by helicopter Saturday, Mr. Kan appeared on national television, promising “to save as many lives as we can, especially today, tomorrow and the day after.”
“We have to hang tough,” he said. “The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident have been the biggest crisis Japan has encountered in 65 years since the end of World War Two.”
“We are under scrutiny on whether we, the Japanese people, can overcome this crisis,” he went on. “I promise that I will risk my life on this job.”
The note of stubborn defiance might not rally a naturally stoic and conservative people, but it could still salvage the Prime Minister’s career.
“I don’t think people are necessarily looking for inspiration or charisma, but competence. Someone who can do what needs to be done to rescue people and come up with a plan for reconstruction, and contain the nuclear situation,” Koichi Nakano, a professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University, told Reuters.
Mr. Kan knows, if he can bring relief to his troubled nation, he can emerge as a hero.
But then he already believes in redemption.
In 2004, while leader of the opposition, he was exposed as an adulterer and became ensnared in a pension fund scandal, after failing to pay required contributions while he was health minister.
Disgraced and desperate, he resigned as party leader, shaved his head, donned traditional Buddhist garb and went on a pilgrimage to 88 Buddhist temples on the island of Shikoku.
Before long, he had returned to politics, became finance minister and ultimately, last June, Prime Minister.