Don't blame Kan for the nuclear crisis

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2011, 12:00am

A lack of criticism has long been the root of Japan's malaise, insularity and inability to manage a crisis. Criticism from the outside, known as gai-atsu in Japanese, can help Japan's long-term recovery and reconstruction; indeed, many Japanese say their society needs it.

But foreigners who solely blame Prime Minister Naoto Kan for the nuclear crisis are pointing fingers in the wrong direction, and they need to understand the dynamics of power behind the scenes that has led Japan into its darkest hour since 1945.

Firstly, there's some truth to the joke going around the expatriate community that when US President Barack Obama called Kan last Thursday, he asked to talk to government spokesman Yukio Edano, who has been gaining public sympathy by softening the bad news he reports on television several times a day.

Indeed, it often seems that Kan is not in charge of what's happening at the smouldering Fukushima reactors. The Tokyo Electric Power Company and others in Japan's secretive nuclear industry have a long history of covering up accidents and operating as if they are above the courts and the Diet.

Kan lacks the mandate needed for strong leadership in a time of crisis. Amid low approval ratings, he was under pressure to resign -before the March 11 disaster- over allegations he accepted donations from a non-Japanese citizen.

Kan did not create the tsunami, of course. He inherited an ageing network of nuclear clunkers from the ousted Liberal Democratic Party, whose kingpins blessed Japan's nuclear development during their five-decade monopoly of rule.

A day after the quake, he flew over the troubled Fukushima plant, potentially exposing himself to radiation, and also toured the disaster zone stretching across six prefectures. In words at least, he has tried to rally a nation already mired in recession and self-doubt. 'We will rebuild Japan from scratch,' he said. 'We must all share this resolve.'

While historians will probably associate Kan with the disasters, others must be held responsible and accountable. Inept, corrupt and aloof bureaucrats, scientists and power company officials have put millions of Japanese at risk to radiation, first by building and operating reactors that could not withstand natural forces, and secondly by withholding vital information from the public. Mafia-connected construction companies also fooled the public into believing their pork-barrel construction of breakwalls and ugly 'tetrapods' would somehow save them from inevitable tsunamis in an earthquake-prone country.

Kan, who made his political career by exposing a health ministry cover-up of tainted HIV blood products, should publicly take on the nuclear miscreants. He should also tell the truth about health hazards faced by the majority of Japanese who believe they are safe at home. If he really believes what he says, he should stand 31 kilometres from the nuclear power plant, just outside the government's danger zone, and eat a handful of healthy, non-harmful spinach.

Tokyo-based freelancer Christopher Johnson is author of Siamese Dreams and the upcoming novel Kobe Blue