Politics Returns to Disaster-struck Japan

Politics in Japan went into the deep freeze in the immediate aftermath of the March 11 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. But slowly the old political standoff that had threatened to bring the government to a halt is reasserting itself.

In a way, the disaster saved Prime Minister Naoto Kan's bacon, at least temporarily. Before the tragedy, Kan was a dead man walking. The only question seemed to be how many more weeks could he hold on to the job before he became another short-lived Japanese premier.

It isn't as if Kan's handling of the disaster and its aftermath really boosted his flagging popularity. Support for the Kan cabinet still languishes at around 20 percent approval, not much different from before the earthquake struck. Huge pluralities, reaching 70 percent or more, say they disapprove of the government's handling of the crisis.

Perhaps that is not surprising when one considers that more than two months after the quake struck, thousands of people in the impacted region are still camping out in high school gymnasiums and the four damaged nuclear power plants that have yet to be brought under control.

Kan has kept a relatively low profile during the ensuing weeks to the point of being virtually invisible, to quote his rival Ichiro Ozawa. The day after the quake he flew to Fukushima to gauge the nuclear threat at first hand, but all he earned for this effort was criticism for getting in the way of people struggling to contain the meltdown. He didn't return to the disaster area until three weeks later, and thus was criticized for neglecting the population. This seems to be a no-win situation, except that a sense of proper timing for such things is a basic attribute of a well attuned politician.

Kan's absence from the public light means that the public face of the government during the crisis has devolved on the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, who acts as the government spokesman as Japan's premier does not have his own press secretary. He had held daily briefings, though he has changed from wearing his disaster jump suit to an ordinary coat and tie.

By most accounts the political "truce" ended on April 10, when Japanese went to the polls in local elections. Kan's Democratic Party of Japan (PJ) failed to secure any of the six prefectural governorships at stake, and their numbers in local assemblies also fell (elections were postponed in the impacted region.)

Since that election the reluctance to criticize the government that was apparent in the weeks immediately after earthquake, has receded. Sharp questioning from the main opposition the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is to be expected, but Kan has had to endure criticism from his arch rival in the DPJ, former party president Ichiro Ozawa.

Ozawa berated Kan publically for the "irresponsible way the cabinet is dealing with the crisis" and what he called his "invisible leadership." Ozawa continues to command a strong following among the ordinary members of parliament, many of whom he personally recruited and advanced.

Ever since the earthquake there has been loose talk about forming a grand, cross-party coalition with the LDP and other parties, possibly with LDP president Sadakau Tanigaki as prime minister and Kan serving as a deputy. There is a precedent; indeed, Kan served in such a "grand coalition" in the 1990s as health minister.

Shortly after the earthquake, Kan himself made just such a suggestion, albeit with himself serving as prime minister and the opposition leader as deputy; Tanigaki rejected the overture, and there seems little prospect that the DPJ rank and file, with a 100-plus majority in parliament, would accept such a deal.

There is some talk of the opposition tabling a vote of no confidence sometime before July. To succeed this would require a substantial number of DPJ members, to join forces with the opposition to vote against their own party.

This is not impossible – a sizeable faction of the DPJ backbenchers are dissatisfied with Kan's leadership, or lack thereof, or are beholden to Ozawa - although it seems unlikely that they can muster enough votes to support such a motion. Ironically, Ozawa masterminded of the last successful no-confidence vote in 1993.

A third possibility might be a censure motion against Kan filed in the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan's bicameral parliament, where the combined opposition holds a majority. Such a vote has relatively little practical clout but would embarrass the government and hamper Kan in speaking to upper house committees.

The Japanese public seems to be of two minds about the situation; they are unhappy with the government's response to the crisis, yet equally reluctant to switch leaders at this critical time. They are also unhappy with the return of political gamesmanship at such a critical time and not eager for holding a general election at this time.

For his part, Kan disavows any intention of stepping down."It would be wrong to shirk my responsibilities," he has said. He seems to have more personal stamina in bucking the recent trend of short-term premiers, including his own predecessor Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned last year under far less demanding circumstances.

Nevertheless, Kan may not be able to resist the pressure. Even before the earthquake struck, the opposition had been threatening to use its upper house majority to deny passage of crucial money bills in hopes of forcing a general election.

Coming soon are action on several supplementary budgets and potential tax increases necessary to raise the revenue needed to begin the long and expensive recovery of the devastated northeast. Yet the parliament has not yet even got around to giving the government authority to sell the bonds that cover 40 percent of the budget, sort of equivalent to the US raising the debt ceiling.

So there remain many hurdles for Kan to overcome which may force his resignation even if it goes strongly against the grain. Waiting in the wings are several possible younger replacements such as Edano and former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, who resigned a couple weeks before the quake over a trivial political fundraising violation.

Maehara has not been heard from much since the crisis began. But he is energetic – and telegenic – and was the star of the administration in the heady days following its 2009 landslide electoral triumph. He may be the only one equipped to provide the leadership that Japan now requires.