It’s a situation that is leaving the overwhelming majority of the Japanese public disgusted with the politicians of the country, according to Gerry Curtis, professor of Japanese politics at Columbia University in New York and a prominent analyst of Japanese politics. He last met Prime Minister Naoto Kan in late April.
“For politicians, the reality is that the three prefectures in Tohoku – Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima – that are affected by the earthquake account for only 4 percent of Japan’s GNP,” Curtis said. “For Americans, it would be like the coast of Maine, where they catch a lot of fish.”
Tohoku can sink back into obscurity, and its effect on the overall Japanese economy will be very minimal, added Curtis. Six months after the March 11 earthquake, the Japanese economic growth rate will be exactly where it was predicted to be before March 11 or a little higher because of the stimulative impact of the spending on construction in Tohoku.
The automobile companies that have component manufacturers in the area had a supply chain problem, but most of the issue has been resolved. It will be completely resolved in six months, because they will build plants overseas or in other parts of Japan, and some plants in Tohoku will be in operation again.
Meanwhile, more than 100,000 people are still living in shelters. Many want to hear from the prime minister.
“I know making policy takes time,” said a fisherman Curtis cited, who aims to rebuild his fish-packaging factory that was destroyed by the tsunami. “I want to hear words from the prime minister that gives me hope and a sense of comfort.”
Curtis noted that that’s what has been missing in Japan. “There’s no leadership,” he said. “They feel that no one is really helping them.”
Politicians are currently focused on getting rid of Kan, who became prime minister a year ago, Curtis said. He is Japan’s fifth leader in four years. He has been criticized for delays in the construction of temporary housing for evacuees, lack of transparency about evacuation information and a lack of leadership.
Kan survived a no-confidence motion Thursday. That’s because he promised the ruling Democratic Party (DPJ) earlier in the day that he would resign after the supplemental budget and the establishment of a basic law for the reconstruction were passed for Japan’s northeast area, according to Curtis.
“His promise to resign gave his opponents in his party a face-saving means to not vote against him, and thereby splitting the party,” Curtis said. “If Kan had not said what he said, they would have had no choice except but to vote for the resolution (calling for his resignation).”
Curtis said none of the politicians who are trying to get rid of Kan, including members in his own party and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPJ) are saying what they would do if they were in power; “Nothing constructive,” noted Curtis. The LDP is the opposition party to the ruling Democratic Party Japan, DPJ.
Japan Lacks Vision and Ideas
“I just came back from Shanghai,” Curtis said. “The Chinese know where they’re headed: they’re going to be number one. They were number one until 200 years ago. It’s nothing new, they said; they are going back to what they always were — the most powerful country in the world.”
Conversely, Japan no longer has a vision, he added. There are a lot of intelligent people, but they don’t have ideas where the country is supposed to go now. Ever since the 80s they’ve never figured out what to do as an encore after they caught up with the West. They’ve been dragging their feet around trying to figure it out.
If the country had direction they could establish a special economic zone in Tohoku and transfer the money and power from the center to the local governments. “Let them decide which ministry rules and regulations to retain, which ones to suspend,” he said. “Let them experiment, because if the experiment fails, the downside risk is very small — it’s not an important area for the Japanese economy — people will continue to catch fish.”
Curtis also noted that Kan was involved in an all-out war against Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO), owner and operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. He says that this would never have happened if the LDP were in power; the problem is that Kan is not very capable. “The LDP would be protecting TEPCO because they are responsible for the system since they were in power for the last 50 years.”
A preliminary summary presented on Wednesday by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Japan underestimated the risks of the tsunami, which led to the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. “The tsunami hazard for several sites was underestimated for several sites,” said the summary. “Nuclear designers and operators should appropriately evaluate and provide protections against the risks of all natural hazards.”
In addition, the IAEA said that the roles of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry remain unclear. Additionally, the IAEA said that it was necessary for the government and the nuclear regulators to obtain independence.
“The government needs to ensure independence not only in resources and structure but also in the resources and expertise that it has available,” said Mike Weightman, leader of the IAEA team, at a news conference. He added that the cause of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was the tsunami, as it damaged the cooling system of the reactors.
The LDP isn’t saying whether it supports a freeze on nuclear power plant building or more nuclear energy, because they have been responsible for the system that exists, according to Curtis.
Japan’s Political Situation
Japan’s political situation is depressing, added Curtis. If the LDP and DPJ end up forming a coalition, then there won’t be an opposition party, which would be dangerous for Japan’s political democracy. But on the other, hand, if they don’t form a coalition nothing will get done. “For the time being, there is no good scenario.”
The most dangerous decision made by the government has been to allow children to go to schools and play in playgrounds where the radiation level is as high as 20 millisieverts (mSv), noted Curtis. The government says this is the international standard; however the standard is meant for adults working in nuclear plants.
Curtis said, “We’re talking about 5- and 6-year-old children, and no one knows what the long-term health consequences may be. For the government to neglect the health of the children is really crazy. Not only the mothers of children in Fukushima, but every mother in the country is angry and up in arms.”
“If this happened in the States, there would be such outrage,” Curtis said. “There would be demonstrations of all kinds. In Tohoku there were no riots; people were orderly.”
At some point, however, people will lose patience, and although the threshold is higher than elsewhere, it will break at some point, Curtis says. The Japanese were not so docile in the 60s; there were demonstrations, violence and active student movements — some of the biggest the world has seen.
So much misinformation has been conveyed to the public. “For example, the Americans were right when the U.S. government said there was a meltdown within a few days of March 11,” Curtis said. “The Japanese said, ‘No, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Yet the experts did know what they were talking about, because government experts had enough information from satellites to run simulations in Washington of what was going on, and these showed that there was a meltdown.” Later, TEPCO said there was a meltdown in three of the reactors.
In response to any questions about the nuclear situation, the great majority of Japanese say that they won’t believe the government or TEPCO. “This government has lost control on this nuclear issue,” Curtis said.