- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

TOKYO | There are two Naoto Kans who live within the Japanese imagination.

One is the crusading health minister of the 1990s who stood up to his own bureaucracy to lift the lid on a horrific AIDS scandal.

The other is the uninspiring prime minister of today, whose dithering leadership sent his popularity rating below 20 percent.

Now Japan’s tsunami tragedy and nuclear crisis are drawing out glimmers of the old Kan — and could make or break him and his government.

Tuesday morning, he announced he was personally taking control of crisis management at the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of a stricken nuclear power plant that was spewing radiation in a dramatic escalation of the crisis.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan discusses the disaster at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on Tuesday. Mr. Kan said the risks of further radiation leaks are increasing after an explosion at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. (Bloomberg)
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan discusses the disaster at the prime minister’s ... more >

The utility is notorious for an instinct to cover up nuclear problems, and Mr. Kan’s action — along with the frequency of his government’s updates — shows greater willingness than previous administrations to be up front with the public.

“There is still a very high risk of more radiation coming out,” the 64-year-old prime minister said in a nationally televised statement Tuesday. “We are making utmost efforts to prevent further explosions and radiation leaks.”

His response to Friday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami and the resulting nuclear crisis has shown flickers of the passion he exhibited in his early years as an environmental activist and health minister, instead of the shuffling listlessness Japan has become accustomed to.

“I promise to risk my life on this job,” an emotional Mr. Kan told the nation, after surveying the devastation in a helicopter.

Along with tours of disaster sites and midnight meetings with the media, there has been concrete action that marks a departure from the secretive, slow-footed leadership that has enraged Japan time and again in times of national trauma.

Mr. Kan swiftly dispatched the military to help rescue efforts. He opened the door to foreign aid — including one-time enemies South Korea and China — a departure from past governments that said it wasn’t needed.

He has sent his top spokesman to confront the media day and night on the nuclear crisis, though the message has seemed confused at times in what is admittedly a complicated situation.

To be sure, all this is a pale shadow of the response of Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who rallied his city after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In a country not known for strong leaders, though, it seems to mark a shift.

An earlier government did not react as decisively after a 1995 earthquake in Kobe that killed 6,400 people. It waffled over sending troops. Relief supplies from overseas piled up in warehouses. Emergency food deliveries were delayed, leaving survivors hungry.

“What we are seeing is a new style of Japanese crisis management,” said Thomas Berger, a Japan expert at Boston University. He was in Kobe just before the 1995 quake and said the contrast between then and now is enormous.