Japan: Lame-duck leaders struggle with crisis response

People watch live TV broadcasting in a Tokyo discount store from the Diet as Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan reacts after he survived a no-confidence motion during Lower House plenary session Thursday, June 2, 2011
Image caption The public has been underwhelmed by Naoto Kan's performance as leader

Almost four months after suffering its greatest disaster since the World War II, Japan is saddled with a lame-duck government that is struggling to co-ordinate an adequate response.

The abrupt resignation on Tuesday of the minister responsible for reconstruction in areas devastated by March's earthquake and tsunami was the latest indication of the government's woes.

Analysts say Prime minister Naoto Kan appears determined to hold on to office for now, despite growing despair about his ability to give decisive leadership.

Mr Kan headed off a rebellion in his own Democratic party (DPJ) last month with a vague promise to step down at a later date.

"His position is ambiguous, and that's made the political chaos even worse," says Tomohiko Taniguchi of Tokyo's Keio University.

"People are no longer just scratching their heads; they're saying the situation is intolerable."

Mr Kan initially told rivals in his own party that he would step down when the crisis was contained at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which continues to leak radiation after its cooling system was knocked out during the earthquake and tsunami.

He now says he wants to oversee the passage of key bills to fund reconstruction, address Japan's massive budget deficit and promote sustainable energy.

That has led to deadlock. Mr Kan will not resign until he has passed the bills. The opposition will not back the bills until he resigns.

'Certain departure'

Many hoped that the scale of the calamity in March would shake Japan out of its political torpor.

Mr Kan is the fourth prime minister in as many years and he was already struggling to assert himself before the tsunami.

Image caption Ryu Matsumoto offended almost everyone he met while in office

"The people in the north-east of Japan have shown remarkable resilience, but there's been nothing from the politicians. Mr Kan made himself a lame duck," says Mr Taniguchi.

The calm stoicism of the tens of thousands of people made homeless by the tsunami and the ensuing nuclear crisis has highlighted the underlying strength and resilience of Japanese society.

Many Japanese companies also reacted rapidly and efficiently to restore supply chains that were interrupted after factories were overwhelmed by the waves.

But the central government has been accused of failing to co-ordinate a coherent relief effort, and to get a grip on the unfolding nuclear crisis.

"Once again, and all too depressingly, mainstream Japanese politics appears incapable of producing stable and coherent leadership," says Dr John Swenson-Wright of Cambridge University.

"With the opposition party, substantial parts of his own governing party and nearly 70% of public opinion expressing no confidence in Mr Kan, his departure in the next few weeks seems certain."

Growing cynicism

Mr Kan tried to impose some authority at the end of June with a mini-cabinet reshuffle that saw Environment Minister Ryu Matsumoto given the key task of overseeing reconstruction in the north-east.

But Mr Matsumoto barely lasted a week in the job after appearing to offend almost everyone he met on a first visit to the disaster area.

He told the governor of Iwate prefecture that there would be no help for devastated communities that did not come up with ideas of their own.

And he publicly upbraided another governor for arriving slightly late for a meeting.

The Japanese have become used to political paralysis during the country's slow decline since the bursting of the bubble economy in 1989.

But there is a deeply embedded historical memory of decisive action when the country is confronted with an existential crisis. Japan was almost unique in Asia in its dynamic response to the threat of Western imperialism in the 19th Century.

There is also great pride in the skills and energy of the post-war generation that rapidly built a world-beating industrial economy out of the ruins of 1945.

But there is no sign of such leadership and clear direction now.

"Public cynicism, coupled with the enormity of the current crisis may persuade people to turn inwards and withdraw their support from mainstream politics," says Dr Swenson-Wright.

"The mood of possibly terminal political and economic decline is quite shocking."

There has been talk of forming a grand coalition to address the current crisis.

But the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which governed Japan for most of its post-war history is now indicating that it will not work with Mr Kan.

Japanese politics is once again descending into squabbles and factional infighting just when the public is crying out for leadership.

Charles Scanlon was the BBC's Tokyo correspondent from 2000 to 2004.