IMMEDIATELY after the earthquake and tsunami on March 11th that crippled reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, all but one of the devices to measure radioactive matter in the area were knocked out. So the authorities in Tokyo sent up a vehicle stuffed with gauges to assess how dangerous the leakage was.
Bewilderingly, says Goshi Hosono, a politician recently appointed to oversee Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO, the utility that runs the plant), the vehicle got stuck in traffic. It then ran out of petrol at a time when the tsunami had led to a nationwide shortage of fuel. Because of this, the government abandoned the mission. Later, the government declared the Fukushima incident to be on the same level of seriousness as the accident at Chernobyl 25 years ago. Yet it had taken what Mr Hosono says was seven to ten days before the government could get reliable data on the amount of radioactive matter pouring out. During that period it became clear that a partial meltdown had taken place in at least one of the six reactors.
Such stories may leave people aghast over how haphazard has been the response to Japan’s nuclear mess. After all, at the time even journalists driving close to Fukushima were able to get petrol on the main highways. Still, to date no concrete accusations suggest that the prime minister, Naoto Kan, has comprehensively mishandled the daunting array of disasters that together make up the biggest challenge Japan has faced since the second world war. Ordinary people have a growing perception that Mr Kan easily loses his temper and they do not like that, says Koichi Nakano of Sophia University. “But there have been no clear examples where his action has been terribly damaging.”
Government and politics
For all that, politicians from within his own party, as well as the opposition, are plotting to oust Mr Kan. It is yet one more indication, if any were needed, of how alarmingly self-absorbed are Japan’s political classes.
On April 26th Yukio Hatoyama, a former prime minister, held a forum of 64 anti-Kan parliamentarians from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). In fewer than nine months in office, Mr Hatoyama proved an abysmal prime minister. Since his resignation, he seems to have cast aside those memories to grow increasingly resentful of his successor. He called his forum a “Harmonious Solidarity for the Grand Coalition to Tackle the Earthquake Disaster”. Far from promoting harmony, its implicit aim was to foster a coup within the party against Mr Kan.
Meanwhile, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled for much of the half-century to 2009 and thus bears a large share of the responsibility for lax safety standards in the nuclear-power industry, is also seeking Mr Kan’s early resignation. It may pursue a censure motion in parliament with other opposition parties.
Use the interactive “Graphics Carousel” to browse our coverage of catastrophe in Japan.All this, even though the public shows no enthusiasm for yet another revolving-door prime minister. To all but the political classes engaged in plotting, a leadership struggle for its own sake at a time when the focus should be on dealing with nuclear and humanitarian concerns seems crazy. None of the main parties has offered a compelling alternative for how to recover from the disaster. This includes the DPJ. Far from using the crisis as an opportunity to push for reform, the party’s secretary-general, Katsuya Okada, says things should “settle down” before the party proposes rebuilding initiatives, new energy policies and a rise in the consumption tax to pay for reconstruction.
All is not hopeless, however. On April 26th Makoto Iokibe and Jun Iio, the two (non-government) leaders of Mr Kan’s new Reconstruction Design Council, laid out their early thoughts on how to rebuild Tohoku, the shattered north-eastern region of Japan’s main island where almost 26,000 have died or remain missing, presumed drowned. Though they believe it will take at least a decade to recover, their vision, especially compared with the lack of it in politics, is daring. They want to let locals play the main role in reshaping their blighted communities; rebuild in ways that suit elderly residents; use ideas from business and abroad; and limit the influence of the government in Tokyo, which they believe dangerously overcentralises decision-making. Japan’s usual way of doing things, Mr Iio insisted, was not up to meeting challenges on this scale.
.The same day, Mr Kan announced his decision to appoint an investigative panel into the Fukushima chain of accidents. Nuclear officials believe Japan needs a quick and thorough investigation, including international experts, if it is to gauge the safety of other nuclear plants. In particular, it will have to look into what happened on the night after the tsunami, when there was a delay in “venting” pressure building up in one reactor. Officials worry most about the Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka prefecture, which is reckoned to pose the greatest risk to Tokyo should a quake strike nearer the capital. Hamaoka is of a similar type and age to Fukushima Dai-ichi.
But whether the reconstruction council and nuclear investigation promote deep changes in the way things are done in Japan rests largely on the prime minister’s powers of leadership. Only Mr Kan can make sure that the good ideas which emerge do not sink into the Tokyo swamp of bureaucrats and politicians. With some of his party against him, and the opposition unco-operative, it is not even clear that Mr Kan will get emergency budgets approved by the Diet, let alone be able to promote decentralisation and sound energy initiatives. It might help if ordinary citizens spoke out strongly for change. But apart from sporadic protests against TEPCO in the past week, they have yet to make their voices heard above the petty politicians.