ANALYSIS: Lame-duck PM Kan struggles to leave stamp on Japan

TOKYO — When Naoto Kan became Japan’s 94th prime minister in June 2010, a T-shirt appeared in Tokyo emblazoned with “Yes We Kan,” a play on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign slogan “Yes We Can.”

But for most of his 14 months in power, Mr. Kan has heard opponents tell him “No, you can’t.”

Mr. Kan, who resigned Friday, learned the hard way about where real power lies in Japan.

Japan is a parliamentary democracy, but a nexus of entrenched bureaucrats, former leaders, back-room kingmakers, business elites and conservative media exerted perhaps more influence over policy than Mr. Kan himself during what he has called “Japan’s worst crisis since the war” — the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster.

The son of a company worker, or “salaryman,” Mr. Kan was unlike other leaders who descended from politicians. He began his political career as an aide to a women’s rights activist and has since struggled to put his personal stamp on Japan.

With powerful groups, including the Japan Business Federation allied against him, Mr. Kan often appeared to be an outsider within Japan’s massive governmental apparatus.

Not long after his impassioned speech in July saying Japan would phase-out nuclear energy, various ministers said it was only his personal view, not the policy of the government.

Though he succeeded in ordering the shutdown of the Hamaoka nuclear reactor downwind of Tokyo, the Chubu Electric Power Co. later declared it would restart reactors after spending billions of dollars on building a wall to keep out tsunamis.

Mr. Kan survived a party revolt in June and vowed to stay in office until passage of bills on renewable energy and financing reconstruction of the tsunami-ravaged northeast. Observers, including Social Democratic Party chief Mizuho Fukushima, said it’s unclear whether Mr. Kan’s successor will implement his vision for Japan.

While Mr. Kan immediately went on TV to appear in charge after the 9.0-magnitude quake, he did not set foot in the disaster area until three weeks later, and he spent pnly a few hours with survivors at shelters in the obliterated town of Rikuzen-Takata in Iwate province, the domain of his political nemesis Ichiro Ozawa.

Local media have noted that Mr. Ozawa, who lost the leadership race to Mr. Kan last September and was later suspended from the party over corruption allegations, spearheaded moves to oust Mr. Kan.

Known as the “Shadow Shogun” for his back-room dealings, Mr. Ozawa will likely influence the outcome of the party’s selection of a new leader, set for early next week.

“As a ruling party, they [the Democratic Party of Japan] haven’t been able to bring everybody together,” opposition leader Sadokazu Tanigaki, former finance minister during the rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday. “That’s why they’ve had trouble ruling the country.”

Mr. Kan’s 64 percent approval ratings last September evaporated amid his government’s clumsy handling of a collision between Japanese and Chinese vessels near a disputed island.

Not long after that, his wife and first cousin, Nobuko Kan, revealed in her book “What on Earth Will Change in Japan Now That You Are Prime Minister?” that she didn’t expect to stay long in the prime minister’s residence.

Indeed, Mr. Kan was under pressure to resign when the catastrophic earthquake hit at 2:46 on a gloomy Friday afternoon.

Kevin Maher, who headed the Japan desk at the U.S. State Department until April, told reporters in Japan last week that nobody appeared in charge of Japan during the first week of the crisis, when radiation spewed out of damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima province.

Mr. Maher cited Japan’s cumbersome tradition of slowly building consensus before reaching important decisions and the lack of information sharing between ministries and state agencies. “Nobody in the Japanese political system was willing to say ‘I’m going to take responsibility and make decisions,’” he said.

Mr. Kan’s advisers and deputies, including Goshi Hosono, the state minister in charge of the nuclear crisis, often told reporters about Mr. Kan’s frustrations in dealing with the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), whose nuclear reactors melted down after the tsunami.

At the height of the crisis, Mr. Kan, whose nickname “Ira-Kan” refers to his alleged short-temper, reportedly charged into a meeting of Tepco officials and hollered, “What the hell is going on in here?”

Despite having approval ratings below 20 percent among Japanese citizens, Mr. Kan has been popular with foreign residents here. He also won praise from President Obama, who lauded the Japanese prime minister at the Group of Eight summit in Deauville, France, in May.

But Mr. Kan announced this week that he won’t be able to accept Mr. Obama’s invitation to visit Washington in September.

As a lame-duck leader, Mr. Kan recently avoided the press, choosing instead to write comments on his personal blog.

During what appear to be his final days in office, local media have spotted Mr. Kan stocking up on books to read after his departure. The books include the memoirs of a former Fukushima governor who claims that he was ousted due to his anti-nuclear views, and another titled “Emergency Explanation! The Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and Radiation,” which suggests that Mr. Kan himself is trying to figure out what hit him — and Japan — during his tumultuous tenure in power.

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