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Where’s Kan?

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Be it an arm around a bereaved family member or some supportive words to a hospitalized victim, it’s the ultimate photo opportunity. Genuinely concerned or not, national leaders are never usually shy of portraying compassion during disasters.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, however, seems to be to be steering clear of the limelight.

The death toll has mounted (nearly 22,000 dead or missing as

of noon Monday, according to the national police agency), a new plume of smoke has poured out of a reactor building at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, and food such as spinach has been found to contain higher than normal (not dangerous) levels of radiation. Yet Kan stayed in the capital having canceled a trip to the disaster zone.

On Monday morning, Kan was due to fly by helicopter to Ishinomaki, one of the worst hit cities in the worst hit prefecture of Miyagi, and then on to a football training camp being used by firefighters close to the radiation-seeping nuclear plant, but government officials said he postponed the trip due to bad weather that would make taking off and landing treacherous.

While it has been bitterly cold in the north (where the displaced are calling for more blankets), a friend in Sendai told me that the weather was simply overcast and far from dangerous. And if conditions were as bad early morning as the government said, why didn’t Kan just wait until the weather improved and make a shorter trip to one of the two locations? And why didn’t he make a trip earlier?

The face of the government has been its top spokesman Yukio Edano. His weary eyes have made him a bit of a cult hero on social media sites, with thousands of Japanese tweeters urging him to get some shuteye. A joke doing the rounds is that when U.S. President Barack Obama calls Kan about the disaster he asks to be put through to Edano.

While Edano, in his emergency worker’s jumpsuit, is a constant fixture on television, it is unclear how Kan is demonstrating leadership behind the scenes. It seems that Kan has decided to stay in the background and let Edano take the brunt of questions from Japan’s once-meek reporters. But shouldn’t leaders be capable of organizing their own troops while also rallying the public?

Kan has rightly berated TEPCO, operator of the Fukushima plants and a company with a shady past, for its lack of transparency, reportedly asking its officials: ‘What the hell is going on?’ But that statement was made in a private meeting, and if the prime minister is so incensed by TEPCO (as the public is), he should make his feelings clear to the nation.

The constant bickering of day-to-day Japanese politics seems inconsequential now given the magnitude of the disaster, but it has reared its ugly head once more. Much talk has been made in recent years of a ‘grand coalition’ between Kan’s disjointed Democratic Party of Japan and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, and in a time of need, Kan stretched out an olive branch to build a unity government to deal with the crisis.

He offered places in the Cabinet to prominent opposition lawmakers. He asked Sadakazu Tanigaki, the Liberal Democratic Party leader, to step in as deputy prime minister with a task of overseeing the response to the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and radiation threat.

Tanigaki, a smooth (read greasy) operator slapped Kan’s request back in his face, saying in a tweet: ‘We will continue to support the government from outside.’

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, the government also askedLDP Vice President Tadamori Oshima to join the Cabinet, but Oshima reportedly growled back: ‘You leave the Cabinet! I’ve been telling you since last year that I won’t join.’

With the government facing an unprecedented situation with greater consequences than the 1995 Kobe quake, lawmakers should put petty squabbling aside, put hands on deck and bring moralpolitik to the fore.

Questions are being asked about Kan’s leadership and rightly so. He could help himself (and lend a little support to those in need) by getting out there a bit more with the suffering many. While he’s no Popeye, it wouldn’t hurt if he shared a little spinach with them – he might even absorb a little more iron.

Written by Andy Sharp

March 24, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Politics