Tags: Japan | Kan | Lead | Crisis

Can Japan's Kan Lead Through the Crisis?

Monday, 14 Mar 2011 08:59 AM

 

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The man who must carry Japan through its darkest days since World War Two may not be a charismatic and inspirational leader, but what Prime Minister Naoto Kan really needs is the competence to pull it off.

The country was fighting a battle on two fronts on Monday: to prevent a nuclear catastrophe at crippled power plants and deal with a humanitarian disaster after a huge earthquake and tsunami that likely killed more than 10,000 people.

"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," said Koichi Nakano, a professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.

Kan was once a citizen activist and a fierce debater on the campaign trail, but the zeal that marked him as an opposition leader has faded along with his popularity since he became prime minister -- Japan's fifth since 2006 -- last June.

His voter support rate had sunk to around 20 percent before last week's disaster due to a view that he was flip-flopping on policy, bungling diplomatic relations and generally making a mess of governing.

But his track record may be of little use in predicting whether Kan rises to the challenge of the current crisis.

"This is not about running the government. It's about mobilizing a nation," said one veteran political analyst who asked not to be identified.

"This will draw on something deep inside that we don't know if he has. I certainly hope that he does. He is very tough, he's principled, and he's identified with the common man."

Clearly, the 64-year-old Kan is aware of the stakes.

"We're under scrutiny on whether we, the Japanese people, can overcome this crisis," Kan told a televised news conference two days after the disaster hit this country of 127 million people who until now were mostly worried about their jobs, their pensions and the burden of ballooning public debt.

Some experts say Kan has struck the right tone in public messages, calling on the public to stay calm and help each other out, leaving nitty-gritty and confusing details to lesser officials, and thanking those working on the rescue effort.

"Micro managing would be a big mistake. What he has to do is be the representative of the people and say what they want to say," said Steven Reed, a professor at Tokyo's Chuo University.

NOT A QUITTER

While the content of the message may be right, the presentation could be a problem since Kan strikes some listeners as reading a script rather than speaking from the heart.

But that's not unusual in a country where charismatic leaders have been in short supply and the political culture has long put a premium on back-door deals over media strategy.

That tradition made soundbite-savvy Junichiro Koizumi, a flamboyant figure with a mane of grey hair, stand out all the more during his 2001-06 tenure as prime minister.

Known for a short temper that earned him the nickname "Irascible Kan," today's prime minister is unlikely to play a comforting role in the mold of Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, whose "Grandpa Wen" visits to the disaster zone after the 2008 Sichuan quake kept the rescue in the spotlight.

Comforting the public, however, has not traditionally been a task for the prime minister. Instead, the royal family has played that role.

Nor does Kan have much experience running big organizations.

He served briefly as health minister in a coalition government in 1996, impressing voters by exposing and apologizing for a scandal over HIV-tainted blood products.

But Kan has failed to shine as a communicator since taking on the nation's top job, stunning many when he told reporters he was "not familiar with the matter" after a rating agency downgraded Japan's huge sovereign debt.

But what Kan does have that could stand the country in good stead is a stubborn streak that means he doesn't give up.

Unlike many of his predecessors who hail from wealthy political families, Kan is the son of a businessman and got his start in politics campaigning for a feminist lawmaker before seeking a seat in parliament for himself. He lost three times before winning a seat from a small, leftist party.

Kan is also one of the few leaders in his Democratic Party who didn't start out in the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled almost non-stop for more than half a century before the Democrats swept to power for the first time in August 2009.

Before the disaster hit, opposition parties were pressing him to call a snap election by refusing to help enact vital budget bills, while rivals in his own party were plotting to force their unpopular leader to quit to improve their fortunes.

Kan -- whose four immediate predecessors all exited office in about a year or less -- has brushed aside such calls.

"Kan does not appear to be someone who quits easily," said Chuo University's Reed. "In this situation, I'd rather have a guy who doesn't quit than someone who says, 'It's getting tough, I'm going to leave'."

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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