Japan's Depressing Squabbling
Image Credit: Wiki Commons / Chris 73

Japan's Depressing Squabbling

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Last month, Hiroko Tabuchi, a Tokyo-based reporter for The New York Times, tweeted a translated summary of a letter she had received from Tomoko Hatsuzawa, a Fukushima mother. In the letter, Hatsuzawa indicates she lives 60 kilometres from Fukushima Daiichi, which is about double the distance from the stricken nuclear plant that most of the media has been focusing on, and triple the 20 kilometre mandatory evacuation zone set by the government.

In her letter, Hatsuzawa laments the government’s inaction. ‘They tell us to stay put. They tell our kids to put on masks and hats and keep going to school.’ Tabuchi translates. Hatsuzawa goes on to express her regret and frustration with not realizing the dangers posed by the nuclear plant sooner. Finally, she pleads to the international community to speak out against the Japanese government, to pressure them into action.

Hatsuzawa isn’t alone in noting the lack of forward movement – a recent article in The Daily Yomiuri indicates that 55 percent of donations aren’t reaching March 11 survivors.

There was, of course, some movement on the political front last week. It’s hard to imagine, though, that it was the kind of action most Japanese were hoping for. As discussed by Robert Pekkanen here, Prime Minister Naoto Kan survived a no-confidence vote in the Diet's lower house, but only by promising to step down after settling the current crisis.

As several commentators have noted, it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Kan has bought himself some time, but at the cost of his own premiership. At first glance, this may seem better than the alternatives. After all, had the vote of no-confidence passed, either Kan and his Cabinet would have had to resign, causing a split within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, or else Kan would have had to dissolve parliament, which would have prompted a general election. Because the Diet has a backlog of legislation for rebuilding measures, either outcome would have been delayed by several weeks.

But what’s so troubling in all this is that the opposition has justified the no-confidence motion as reflecting their concern over Kan’s handling of the post-crisis situation. Yet it’s hard to believe that engaging in such posturing in the midst of recovery efforts is really in the nation’s best interests. It’s true that one of the criticisms of the government’s disaster response is that it has been sluggish, strangled by red tape. So why trigger a potentially massive political restructuring process in the middle of the crisis?

And then there are the opportunists within Kan’s own party. First there’s Ichiro Ozawa, dubbed the ‘Shadow Shogun’ because of his behind the scenes influence within the party. Ozawa, too, threw his weight behind the no-confidence vote, and as noted by Pekkanen, there’s some bad blood between Kan and Ozawa after Kan reproached Ozawa last year.

Ozawa’s Machiavellian shrewdness has apparently been dulled by funding scandals, prompting The Economist to label him an ‘ineffectual bully.’ But even setting these scandals aside, Ozawa’s behaviour last week looked more like that of a petulant child than the actions of a man who really has the nation’s best interests at heart.

And there’s also former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who was forced to resign last year after digging himself into a hole with his backtracking and false promises. Certainly, there’s an argument that Kan could have been better prepared and responded more decisively to the earthquake and tsunami aftermath. But it’s odd that Hatoyama has seemed so influential with his deal to back Kan if the latter eventually steps down in light of his own ineptness.

Setting aside the fact that the prime ministerial revolving door discredits Japan’s political system, it’s simply unacceptable that lawmakers are concerning themselves with power struggles and infighting while the pleas of people like Ms. Hatsuzawa go unheard.

Japan’s politicians are looking increasingly detached from the trials and tribulations of the people they are meant to lead.

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