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Naoto Kan Misses His Moment

Kan March 21

By Michael Penn

SNA (Tokyo) — Times of tragedy are not something to be welcomed, but they are occasions within which able political leaders can thrive and fulfill their destiny.

In ordinary times, of course, it is beneficial to have the coherence and sense of direction that strong leadership can bring, but during a severe national crisis ― when the public is confused and afraid ― these dynamic qualities become little short of necessary.

How miserable it is, therefore, that Prime Minister Naoto Kan has signally failed to measure up to the challenge.

The national crisis that followed the 9.0 Tohoku Earthquake was in many ways a golden opportunity for the prime minister to turn the tables on his critics at a time when his administration was very much on the ropes. Had Naoto Kan stood up and provided the leadership his nation needed, the general public would have forgiven all of his past sins and provided him the chance to affect many of the reforms that this nation desperately needs.

But, as always, while Kan sometimes points in a promising direction, he follows up by sliding back into irrelevance.

On the positive side, the immediate sartorial change from business suits to workmen’s clothes was a well-considered bit of political theater ― such symbolism does matter.

When the prime minister gave a tongue-lashing to executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Company for their sluggish communications to his office, he was also on the right track. In fact, it should have been done in full public view.

Finally, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano’s rugged twenty-four-hour-a-day crisis management performance has been another point in the administration’s favor ― it’s easy to guess that Mr. Edano standing up at the podium in his workman’s outfit will become one of the iconic images of this crisis for years to come.

Regrettably for Naoto Kan and his nation, however, these few promising elements do not add up to adequate leadership.

Kan needed to get himself out to the tsunami-struck regions within the first 48 hours, sharing the risks ― and the grief ― of his suffering people.

Instead, here we are ten days after the horrific tsunami and the prime minister still hasn’t been up north, canceling a belated visit today due to “bad weather.” For a national political leader, the only word which comes to mind for this kind of behavior is “inexcusable.”

These past ten days should have seen Kan appearing everywhere: urging on relief workers; publicly calling out leaders of the nuclear industry; reassuring the survivors that the government will not abandon them; and in every way possible acting as a cheerleader for national resilience and regional reconstruction.

In fact, the Kan administration has been mostly passive and reactive, trying to coordinate things from behind the scenes and making little attempt to break the usual establishment mould. They’ve come pretty close to admitting that they are overwhelmed, and some senior officials now have a dazed, shell-shocked look in their eyes.

Their projection of weakness and confusion is not what the nation needs.

In last September’s DPJ leadership elections, the main argument of the followers of Ichiro Ozawa was that Kan lacked leadership ability and that’s why he should be thrown out of the Kantei after only three months in office as premier.

A strong case can be made that they were right.

Michael Penn is the President of the Shingetsu News Agency.