Japan’s virtues should help Kan solve its problems
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
By Martin Hutchinson
The Japanese concept of ‘wa’ — or harmony — may help Prime Minister Naoto Kan to solve his country’s mounting problems. The nation’s social cohesion and stoicism have kept a lid on looting and panic, while limiting power outages, since an earthquake rippled across the northeast of the country. Kan has played to these qualities, and since he can blame infrastructure failures on the opposition, he may emerge from the crisis strengthened enough to tackle Japan’s fiscal position.
Japanese reaction to the March 11 earthquake has demonstrated the society’s civic strengths. Order has been maintained and relief supplies distributed efficiently. Even with the danger of nuclear meltdown, there is little panic, while the Fukushima Daiichi workers’ courage in exposing themselves to deadly radiation deserves the utmost admiration. Indeed, all it seemed to have taken to reduce power usage sufficiently to prevent a blackout was a March 17 tweet from the prime minister’s office.
The consensual nature of Japanese politics discourages charismatic leadership, and often impedes decision-making. Most action emerges from the country’s powerful and effective bureaucracy, which is already considering relief measures for the Tohoku region. Kan may not be a charmer, but he has organized relief effectively and damped down panic overreactions to the reactor problem. This has caused strains with more populist governments, which have urged stronger measures to safeguard their nationals and shifted their positions against nuclear power. If Fukushima Daiichi enters full meltdown, Kan’s stoicism will appear misguided, but that currently appears unlikely.
Of course, Kan has a political advantage: Japan’s infrastructure excesses, including the opaque and imperfectly-run nuclear program, were products of the opposition LDP’s 55-year rule. He can hope to avoid blame for Fukushima and may even be politically strengthened by it.
Further, the earthquake’s economic cost has been estimated at $184 billion, only 3 percent of Japan’s GDP, so the fiscal strain may be limited. If the costs of reconstruction enable Kan to enact reforms that prove permanent, such as higher sales taxes and reduced spending on pointless infrastructure, Japan’s fiscal position could ameliorate. At the very least, rebuilding will boost economic activity and tax revenue.
A week since the quake unleashed a torrent of destruction on his country, Kan’s position appears, on balance, to have been fortified. Down the road, that may help him put forward long-term solutions to Japan’s deep economic problems.