Even by the dismal standards of recent Japanese prime ministers, Naoto Kan could hardly be described as a people person. In the days and weeks that followed the unprecedented triple hit of a magnitude-nine earthquake, the devastating tidal wave and a nuclear drama, it was not Prime Minister Kan’s first instinct to rush to the stricken north-east and comfort its homeless, shell-shocked citizens. Nor to console in person the hapless residents of Fukushima, the unfortunate hosts of the out of control reactor. Kan doesn’t do touchy-feely displays and the public – with whom his ratings were uncomfortably low before the crisis – didn’t seem to expect or demand it.
What he and his cabinet colleagues did do was start appearing at all times in striking blue utility suits. Somewhere between a Japanese factory worker and a demilitarised Kim Jong-il, the suit seemed to be saying: “This is a crisis and we mean business”. At every meeting and press conference, both Kan and Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, appeared in their blue suits, wielding bulging files as though fresh from the disaster control frontline. Through those initial weeks, the public face of the government wasn’t Kan so much as Edano, whose increasingly weary appearance led him to become the subject of a Twitter campaign encouraging him to get some sleep.
Different ministries and government agencies have their own emergency uniforms, in shades of blue, beige (Health Ministry) and orange (Fire & Disaster Management Agency), with the name of the department sewn on – for ease of identification – some with emblems, some without.
When Kan, a former finance minister, took over as prime minister in June 2011, he inherited some tough problems, including a gruelling economic situation and a rumbling dispute over the relocation of an American air base on the island of Okinawa. His harshest critic is perhaps his own wife, Nobuko, who has described him as a “number two or three person”, rather than a leader, a terrible cook and a bad dresser. To top it all, she said she wouldn’t marry him again in another life.
Kan is notorious for his quick temper. Who would have wanted to be at the end of the outburst picked up by media microphones as he snapped “What the hell is going on?” and vented his fury with Tepco, the operators of the Fukushima plant, for their delays in passing on information to the government? In spite of extreme hardship in the worst-affected areas and anxiety in the capital over the impact of seeping radiation, there has been no public - order situation to deal with. The Japanese education system, which inculcates a group - first mentality, had done the work already. Yet despite his inability to rally the Japanese people, Kan has been delivered an unenviable task that few would want to tackle.
- Face: How are you supposed to look when your country is in crisis? The PM and his team looked so weary that people campaigned for them to get some sleep.
- Suit: The pale blue Cabinet Office outfits come off the peg from the corporate department of the Mitsukoshi store. The suits are customised with the word “cabinet” in kanji on the sleeve.
- Emblem: The paulownia flower (Go-shichi no kiri) crest is the symbol of the prime minister’s office. Emblems have been used to identify important families in Japan for nearly 1,000 years and the kiri also appears on the ¥500 coin.
- Folder: Throughout the crisis Kan appeared holding a bulging folder of paperwork. It became a key accessory, so what did the file contain? Certainly not any travel plans for visiting the devastated area – Kan stayed away.
- Trainers: The prime minister sported trainers with his “I am managing a crisis” look. They seemed to imply that he was dashing from one meeting to the next – but his sluggish demeanour told a different story.
TV viewers in Japan have grown used to the crumpled face and rumpled boiler suit of Naoto Kan since the 11 March quake/tsunami disaster, wrestling with what he calls the nation’s worst crisis since the Second World War. With swathes of the Pacific coast destroyed, thousands homeless and a ruined nuclear plant northeast of the world’s biggest metropolis, it may be too early to pass verdict on the merits of Japan’s fifth prime minister in as many years.
But Kan faces little competition in the long, undistinguished list of recent Japanese leaders. There was Taro Aso, the flip, loose-tongued scion of political aristocracy who insulted the old, the homeless, foreigners and even doctors, while enjoying a bon-vivant lifestyle that mocked the growing hardship around him.
Then there was Shinzo Abe, another blue-blooded, flat-footed political dunce whose vision for a “beautiful Japan” masked an ugly agenda to unleash the historical deniers and whitewashers of Japan’s wartime past. His support plummeting, his vision in tatters, Abe was finally finished off by stress-induced diarrhoea.
Bumbler-in-chief Yoshio Mori once called Japan’s second city Osaka a “spittoon”, described America as a society of “murderers” and startled Bill Clinton by asking him “Who are you?” (Clinton is reported to have joked, “I’m Hillary’s husband”). His extravagant gaffes forced nervy aides to prepare cue cards for every public appearance.
It’s not that Japan doesn’t need leadership. In the decade since Mori was bumping into the political scenery, the country has slipped from second to third place in the global economic league tables and was struggling to emerge from its biggest quarterly contraction in 35 years when the Pacific plates shifted with such violent force on 11 March. An ageing population and a mountain of public debt – equivalent to about 200 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product – have added to what one commentator recently called “the stench of decay”.
The standard explanation for Japan’s startling lack of political leadership is that politicians here are not meant to lead: elite bureaucrats write policy, control finance and run the country like a wartime economy operating in peacetime, as goes the memorable phrase of author Karel van Wolferen.
For their part, the embattled citizens of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures in Japan’s northeast look to local governments, the Ministry of Health and the Self-Defense Forces for help, not the PM.
Compounding the problem is nepotism: men such as Aso (grandson of postwar prime minister Shigeru Yoshida) and Abe (grandson of prime minister Nobusuke Kishi) simply inherited a political fiefdom, regardless of ability. Even Junichiro Koizumi, the one leader credited over the past decade with some flair for the job, was a blue-blooded political capo who handed his seat to his son.
Kan’s Democrats were supposed to stop the rot, wresting control of policy from the bureaucrats. But that takes backbone and the first man they sent over the barricades, Yukio Hatoyama (another grandson of a prime minister), didn’t have any.
Kan, a veteran activist who made his name fighting Health Ministry bureaucrats, appears to be made of sterner stuff – but critics say even before 11 March he was back-pedalling away from the fight. Will the crisis finally bring the political earthquake long promised to Japan? Don’t hold your breath.
If Japanese PMs have an image problem at home, internationally it’s far worse. None make a mark even in political circles. In part this is because they don’t speak English. And why get to know a man who’ll be gone in months?
What do you do with a problem like Japan’s prime ministers? We look at the recent – often fleeting – people in the hot seat and rate their finest and foulest moments (it’s hard to find a lot of the former but easy for the latter). And now they have Naoto Kan.
High point: taking power in April 2000.
Low point: continuing to play golf after receiving the news of a collision between a Japanese ship and a US submarine, killing nine Japanese citizens.
High point: dissolving the House of Representatives in 2005, a brilliant move that paid off when he won the subsequent election.
Low point: enraging China and Korea by visiting Yasukuni shrine on 15 August, 2006.
High point: talking about his much more interesting wife, Akie, to the world.
Low point: denying the well documented existence of sexual slavery by Japan’s wartime military.
High point: telling journalists that manga could help spread Japan’s “soft power” in the world. Low point: praising Japan for being the “only country [with] one culture, one civilization, one language and one ethnic group”.
High point: proposing yuai, or fraternity, with Japan’s oldest enemy China.
Low point: shedding tears on live TV after admitting defeat on the issue that defined his term: US bases on Okinawa.