On March 13, forty-eight hours after Japan’s Tohoku region was rocked by a catastrophic earthquake, a ferocious tsunami and partial meltdowns at several nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Prime Minister Naoto Kan asked his citizens to unite in the face of “the toughest crisis in Japan’s sixty-five years of postwar history.” Emperor Akihito underscored the gravity of the situation by announcing his “deep concern” for the nation in his first public speech since ascending the throne in 1990. His address brought back sharp memories of his father, Emperor Hirohito, who ended World War II in a famous radio address in August 1945 that asked Japan to “endure the unendurable.”
But even as Japan was reeling from the disaster’s death toll—which is expected to surpass 20,000—and growing increasingly frightened by the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s nuclear reactor complex, there was growing unease at the lack of straight information from both the government and Tepco, a utility with a troubled history of lies, cover-ups and obfuscation dating back to the late 1960s.
The information gap became an international issue on March 16, when US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jaczko openly contradicted the Japanese government by declaring that water in one of Tepco’s reactors had boiled away, raising radiation in the area to “extremely high levels.” He recommended evacuation to any Americans within fifty miles of the site—nearly double the evacuation zone announced by the Japanese government (which immediately denied Jaczko’s assertions). The New York Times piled on the next day with a major article that pilloried the Kan government. “Never has postwar Japan needed strong, assertive leadership more—and never has its weak, rudderless system of governing been so clearly exposed,” the reporters declared.
To be sure, Tokyo’s response to the disaster has been erratic, and the paucity of information about Fukushima was one of the first complaints I heard about the situation from my friends in Japan. But much of the criticism poured on Japan has obscured the many ways its political system has shifted since a 2009 political earthquake, when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was swept out of power for the first time in fifty years. The changes, particularly to people who remember the government’s pathetic response to the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, which killed nearly 6,500, have been striking.
Back then, “the central government was paralyzed, and the city, prefectural, and national police, fire brigades, water authorities, highway authorities, and Self-Defense Forces were shown to be unreliable,” the Australian historian Gavan McCormack wrote in his seminal 1996 book The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence. McCormack, who has lived in Japan for decades, documented that only twenty of sixty-two offers of foreign assistance were accepted; a US offer to dispatch an aircraft carrier as a floating refugee camp was refused; foreign doctors were initially rejected because they lacked proper registration; and “sniffer” dogs that could have been searching for victims were held for days in airport quarantine. Japan’s bureaucratic response was “cold and more concerned with the preservation of its own control” than with humanitarian relief, McCormack concluded.
Kan, who rose to fame as an opponent of Japan’s turgid bureaucracy, has been far more decisive. After a few days of delay and confusion—not surprising, given the magnitude 9.0 quake, the largest in Japanese history—his government moved swiftly on many fronts. Military relief helicopters and ships were dispatched to the worst-hit areas. A US Navy armada was welcomed to the coastal areas hit by the tsunami (although the ships have since moved far away to avoid fallout from the radiation). Foreign offers of resources, including medical and relief teams, were welcomed and teams dispatched within days. Kan’s spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, has constantly been on the air, briefing reporters and the public (including on Twitter). Kan himself flew by helicopter to view the stricken reactors and took personal charge of the nuclear crisis.
As the situation at the reactors deteriorated and Tepco’s explanations became increasingly opaque, Kan quickly lost patience. “What the hell is going on?” he was overheard asking on the phone to Tepco after one frustrating briefing. On March 16 Kan shifted responsibility for the crisis from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and Tepco to Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. Tepco “has almost no sense of urgency whatsoever,” he complained. By this time, too, many Japanese had grown weary of the alarmist warnings of foreign governments and journalists. One group even posted an online “Wall of Shame” to document the “sensationalist, overly speculative, and just plain bad reporting” from foreign journalists.
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That reporting, and the fact that so many media organizations had to fly journalists to Japan, underscores how much that country has disappeared from our political discourse since the early 1990s, when Japan’s economic juggernaut was halted by a financial and banking crisis that led to two decades of stagnation. At the same time, some of the US criticism of Kan seems to stem from nostalgia for the years when the LDP ruled supreme through a system in which—in the Times reporters’ words—“political leaders left much of the nation’s foreign policy to the United States and domestic affairs to powerful bureaucrats.”
That is extremely misleading. Beginning in the early 1950s, the LDP was financed heavily by the CIA as a bulwark against the once-powerful Japanese left, and successive LDP governments acted as a junior partner to the United States in the cold war. While Washington provided the weapons (and the soldiers) to fight communism, the Japanese elite provided military bases and profited by funneling economic aid and investments to US allies in South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere.
At home, the LDP and its corporate backers fought ferociously to suppress labor unions and civic groups that organized to protect workers, human rights and the environment. The end result was an LDP-created “Japan Inc.”—an undemocratic, corporatist state in which bureaucrats blessed and promoted nuclear power and other industries they were supposed to regulate, and then received lucrative jobs in those industries upon retirement—a system known as amakudari.
But during the ’90s the LDP-style of governing came crashing down. A key turning point—and the one that brought Naoto Kan to prominence—came in 1996 over a notorious scandal over tainted blood. The scandal began in the early ’80s, when the US government, warning that blood supplies were corrupted by HIV, licensed the production of heat-treated blood (which killed the virus) for use in transfusions. The Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare learned of the contamination problem as early as 1983 but publicly dismissed the threat to the public. As a result, hundreds of people, primarily hemophiliacs, received transfusions of unheated, corrupted blood; more than 500 died. The Japanese public later learned that the Health Ministry deliberately refused to license heated blood for several years, not out of health concerns but because it was available only from foreign companies (“To have licensed its use before domestic firms had set up production would have significantly affected market share,” the London Independent reported at the time). Worse, the ministry’s chief adviser on blood transfusions and HIV received large sums of money from Green Cross, one of the companies that supplied unheated blood. And, in a classic form of amakudari, Green Cross hired several former high-ranking ministry officials in senior positions while the tainted blood was still an issue.
These facts were unearthed in 1996 by Naoto Kan when he was minister of health and welfare in a brief coalition government of the LDP and several small parties. Outraged by the scandal, Kan forced ministry officials to release documents showing that they had allowed public use of HIV-tainted blood, and he publicly apologized to the victims. As a result, Kan became wildly popular and at one point was dubbed “the most honest man in Japanese politics.” I was working as a journalist in Tokyo at the time and vividly recall how his embrace of accountability and sharp critique of the bureaucracy surprised and delighted the Japanese public.
But Kan, who became prime minister in June 2010, is also unusual because he isn’t part of a political dynasty. Unlike many Japanese politicians, he emerged from a middle-class family and (like President Obama) first made his mark as a civic activist for progressive causes. In 1997 he was elected to lead the Democratic Party, an amalgam of disillusioned LDP members, trade unionists and the remnants of the left-wing Social Democratic Party. As the party leader in 2003, he took on LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for sending military forces to back up President Bush in Iraq, at one point calling Bush’s war “mass murder.”
Kan’s Democratic Party finally took control of Japan when it scored a landslide victory over the LDP in the August 2009 parliamentary elections. That contest was won by then–party leader Yukio Hatoyama, who campaigned on a plan to strike a line in foreign policy more independent of the United States. His first order of business was to scrap a 2006 agreement with the Bush administration to relocate Futenma, a US Marine Corps air base in Okinawa, to another site on the crowded island, and to send a large contingent of the Marines to Guam. By a wide majority, the people of Okinawa, home to about 75 percent of US bases in Japan, backed Hatoyama’s counterproposal to Washington, which involved removing the Marine base from Japan altogether.
To the Pentagon, however, Hatoyama’s initiative was a nonstarter. As soon as Obama took power, US officials launched a full-court press to dissuade Japan’s new ruling party from scrapping the 2006 agreement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued relentlessly that the Marine presence in Okinawa (which has been continuously occupied by US forces since 1945) was critical, not only to Japan’s security but to US global strategy as well, and insisted it was particularly important in repelling threats from North Korea and China. Last May, Hatoyama gave in. He withdrew the proposal, reaffirmed the agreement with slight modifications and apologized to Okinawa for failing to remove the base. That cost him the leadership of his party and allowed Kan—who’d resigned as party leader in 2004—to take his place.
Kan has taken a softer line on the US bases, declaring that security agreements with the United States will remain a cornerstone of Japanese policy. But the difficulties of the US–Japan relationship were underscored a few days before the Tohoku earthquake when Kevin Maher, head of the State Department’s Japan desk, was quoted in a speech denouncing the people of Okinawa as “masters of manipulation and extortion”—apparently for their strong opposition to US bases. Maher was quickly removed from his post (he remains at State). But the incident is a sad illustration of America’s Big Brother approach to Japan and symbolizes a bilateral relationship that the late Chalmers Johnson once compared to the servile ties between the Soviet Union and East Germany. With the formerly compliant LDP out of power, US policy-makers are still trying to understand that they’re in a whole new ballgame.
But it’s unclear how Kan and his party will pull through. Just before the quake, Kan’s popularity had sunk to below 20 percent, largely as a result of a scandal involving illegal campaign donations from foreigners and stalled parliamentary negotiations over Japan’s budget; there had even been talk of new elections. In a poll published on March 27, however, Kan’s numbers rose to 28 percent, while a hefty 58 percent approved of his government’s handling of the disaster (but the same percentage disapproved of Kan’s handling of the nuclear crisis, and an astonishing 47 percent urged that atomic power plants be immediately abolished).
Meanwhile, the triple disaster continued to unfold as the smoldering reactors spewed high amounts of radioactivity into the environment and Japan began a rebuilding process that will continue for years. Despite the suffering, the Japanese press on, just as they did after World War II. A week after the earthquake and tsunami struck, my Japanese stepmother, Yasuko, who lived in Tokyo during the war, reminded me that her parents had met as Christian relief workers after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which almost wiped Tokyo off the map. “If it wasn’t for that earthquake, I wouldn’t be here today,” she told me. “Out of darkness, you know, there’s always hope.”