The Democratic Party of Japan swept to power on the back of a pledge to rein in the bureaucracy with top-down political leadership, and the current crisis might seem just the time for decisive action. But Masuzoe Yōichi argues that Prime Minister Kan’s peremptory decision-making is inspiring doubt rather than confidence.
On the evening of May 6, Prime Minister Kan Naoto informed the nation that he was calling for the temporary shutdown of the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station, about 200 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. Noting the plant's location near the hypothetical epicenter of the so-called Tōkai Earthquake, a major event expected (with 87% certainty) within the next 30 years, Kan directed the Chūbu Electric Power Company to suspend operations at the facility until new safety measures could be implemented to protect the plant against quake and tsunami damage—a process expected to take about two years.
Bypassing the Cabinet
Japan is a parliamentary democracy in which the prime minister is considered first among equals. Government policies are deliberated in cabinet meetings and adopted by cabinet resolution. Kan bypassed this process, leaving some members of his own cabinet completely in the dark. He described his action as an urgent political decision made necessary by the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. But skirting the cabinet decision-making process only fosters anxiety, confusion, and mistrust among the public, regardless of whether the decision was the correct one in this case.
This was just the latest in a series of peremptory decisions Kan has made since the Great East Japan Earthquake. When he decided to let the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) release radioactive water into the ocean early in April, not even the minister of agriculture—the top official in charge of Japan's fisheries—was notified in advance. The policy of rolling power cuts, announced two days after the March 11 disaster, also came from out of the blue, as did the decision to upgrade the severity of the Fukushima accident to Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The opacity of Kan's decision-making process has left the public bewildered and uneasy.
In moving to shut down the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station, Kan neglected to consult either the electric utility that runs the plant or the local government authorities. It was a top-down decision taken by the prime minister alone, and Chūbu Electric deferred to it as such. As a result, no one considered how the region—the home of Toyota Motor Company and a key center of the nation's manufacturing industry—would compensate for the loss of electricity from the Hamaoka facility, which accounts for 15% of the power supplied by Chūbu Electric. Nor, as far as we can tell, did the government give any thought to the many local residents who depend on the power plant for their living.
Political leadership means taking responsibility for one's decisions, but those decisions need to be carefully considered ones, based on a range of expert opinions. This is no less true in an emergency. Yet Kan has been making critical decisions almost on impulse, on the basis of informal discussions with members of his inner circle. Experts and veteran administrators are being denied any meaningful part in the process. With his misguided approach to political leadership, Prime Minister Kan is showing himself unequal to the task of crisis management. (Written on May 11, 2011)
In This Series
A Prime Minister on Life Support (June 28)
Kan Survives Vote of No-Confidence, but the Chaos Continues (June 5)
A Dangerous Approach to Crisis Management (May 11)
The Kan Administration Reveals Its Incompetence (April 26)
Doubts About Japan’s Crisis Management (April 12)
Facing Up to a National Crisis (March 29)
Graduated from the University of Tokyo, where he majored in political science. Has been a research fellow at the University of Paris and the University of Geneva and an associated professor at the University of Tokyo. A member of the House of Councillors since 2001. Minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare 2007–2009. Is now head of the New Renaissance Party.