Japanese leadership fails at post-disaster reconstruction test

Author: Gerald Curtis, Columbia University

The Japanese Earthquake and tsunami left more than 25,000 people dead or missing. It damaged or destroyed 125,000 buildings, and spread an estimated 27 million tons of debris over a wide expanse of the northeast Pacific coast.

The media and the political opposition have been unrelenting in their criticism of Prime Minister Kan. Less than 20 per cent of the public now support the prime minister. More than 70 per cent disapprove of the way he has dealt with the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake Disaster, and would like to see him resign before the end of August. But the public entertains no illusions that the political situation will improve with Kan’s resignation. With no political leader having captured the public’s imagination, support for the DPJ, LDP and other parties is in free-fall.

The Kan government’s response to the earthquake and tsunami has not been as awful as his critics argue (although the response to the crisis at the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi is another story). It was far better than the way the Bush administration dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and compares favourably to how other governments have responded to disaster situations.

But Japanese rightfully credit the people in Tohoku and not the government for being law abiding and orderly, and for doing so much to take care of themselves and each other. They have not received the assistance from the government they should have. There are stories of elderly people who managed to survive the tsunami dying in evacuation centres from hypothermia because of delays in getting blankets and dry clothing.

Prime Minister Kan has not succeeded in convincing the public that he has a vision for Tohoku reconstruction and for Japan’s future. In the aftermath of the disaster he should have appointed a reconstruction minister immediately and tasked him or her with producing a basic reconstruction plan for urgent presentation. Instead Kan created a reconstruction commission consisting of several academics with little relevant expertise. The Commission’s final report is not due until near the end of the calendar year.

Reliance on this Reconstruction Design Council will delay decisions. The report that finally emerges is certain to be a consensus document, and will not offer the hard-hitting, bold and precedent-breaking approach that is needed.

It is impossible for Kan to come up with a meaningful reconstruction plan if he waits until a committee tells him what to think about everything that might be relevant to recovering from the disaster, from nuclear energy policy to tax policy. It is the responsibility of the Prime Minister himself to come up with a basic concept for rebuilding Tohoku and to then seek expertise from within and outside the government to translate that concept into a concrete plan of action.

The opportunity to create a new Tohoku development model exists. The key is to designate Tohoku as a special economic zone and transfer power and money to the prefecture and local governments. Domestic and foreign businesses would be offered tax holidays and other incentives to invest in the Tohoku SEZ and prefectural governments would have the authority to decide whether to apply or suspend ministerial rules and regulations and whether to impose restrictions of their own, for example on rebuilding in the tsunami danger zone.

Prime Minister Kan seems to have little idea about how to structure a coherent policy making process — and he gets no help from bureaucrats who want to see him fail. He seems incapable of delegating responsibility and the crisis spawned by the catastrophe of 11 March deprived him of the luxury of time in figuring out how to develop a sensible decision making system.

There can be no short-term remedy for Japan’s political woes so long as its parliament is divided. With their control of the upper house, the opposition parties find the temptation to block DPJ legislation irresistible.

Forming a grand coalition is not the answer to Japan’s political predicament either. In Japan, social cleavages — class, region, religion, ethnicity and so on — that help structure party systems elsewhere are weak. A grand coalition would thus signify the effective end of the existence of a major opposition party and the virtual collapse of competitive party politics. That would not produce more enlightened policies; it would only threaten Japan’s political democracy.

The Japanese public faces the dismal political reality that there is not likely to be a strong and effective government anytime soon and that the opportunity that the Tohoku tragedy presents to open a new and dynamic era will probably be lost.

Gerald Curtis is Burgess Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.

This article is a digest of a larger piece that can be found here.