Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan speaks at a Tokyo news conference, March 15, 2011.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan speaks at a Tokyo news conference, March 15, 2011. AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Disaster often has a way of giving national leaders a chance to rally their nations around them. Think of President George W. Bush following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
But there were severe questions about the abilities of Japan's leaders even before the tripartite disaster that hit the island nation.
Now a series of calamities that would have severely challenged even the strongest leadership are, according to reports, really straining the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Kan faced political difficulties even before the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster. Before, opinion polls showed about half of the Japanese surveyed wanted him gone. And that despite his only being in office since June.
Reports suggest those troubles are deepening, despite an initial rally-round-the-leader effect.
Even a Bloomberg Businessweek piece that arguably is somewhat positive about Kan's performance since last Friday's earthquake and tsunami, damns him with faint praise.
Overnight Kan has gone from tired politician to something resembling a leader.
It may seem unseemly to discuss politics at a time when Japan is coming to terms with thousands of dead, with such massive destruction and dislocation.
But in democracies, it's politics that forms governments. And it's governments that respond to national crises. So politics matter, especially during times like these.
As the New York Times reports in a story that's must-reading to get a sense of the interplay between the disaster and Japanese politics:
Evasive news conferences followed uninformative briefings as the crisis intensified over the past five days. Never has postwar Japan needed strong, assertive leadership more — and never has its weak, rudderless system of governing been so clearly exposed. With earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis striking in rapid, bewildering succession, Japan's leaders need skills they are not trained to have: rallying the public, improvising solutions and cooperating with powerful bureaucracies.
"Japan has never experienced such a serious test," said Takeshi Sasaki, a political scientist at Gakushuin University. "At the same time, there is a leadership vacuum."
Politicians are almost completely reliant on Tokyo Electric Power, which is known as Tepco, for information, and have been left to report what they are told, often in unconvincing fashion.
In a telling outburst, the prime minister, Naoto Kan, berated power company officials for not informing the government of two explosions at the plant early Tuesday morning.
With that as a backdrop, small wonder the Obama Administration on Wednesday recommended that U.S. citizens in Japan stay at least 50 miles away from the stricken nuclear plant. That compared with a 12-mile zone in the warnings of Japanese officials.
The U.S. move didn't exactly increase confidence in the Japanese government's handling of the situation.
NPR's Doualy Xaykaothao reported on the rising anger at the government among dislocated Japanese in the relief camps because of the lack of information among other complaints:
"People are now starting to get angry. A couple of days ago, people were still in shock, just trying to figure out what was next for them or how to reach safety.
"Now, they are starting to realize that something's just not right — this could be done faster, the information could be more accurate. And of course the big question now is what is really happening at this nuclear plant."
Some observers suggest the crisis could be Kan's Katrina. But at least the Republican Party in the U.S. had a record of effective governing. Kan's Democratic Party of Japan is essentially a new party, created in 1998.
This is its first big test which, as Kan has said, happens to be the biggest Japan has faced since World War II
The DPJ only won power in 2009 after ousting the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party that ran the nation for decades.
Members of the DPJ have been severe critics of the Japanese bureaucracy which actually runs the country and must rely on that same bureaucracy, according to experts, to manage the government's crisis response and recovery efforts.
So while much attention has been, and rightly so, on the vast human tragedy and suffering and the malfunctioning nuclear plant, it's important not to lose sight of the challenges created by Japan's governance issues.