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‘Kan the Destroyer’ needs his fire back

by Michael Hoffman

In spring 1997, the American news magazine Time published a special issue titled “The New Japan.” The subtitle was “A rising generation of risk-takers and rule-breakers is stirring the country from its slumber.”

Prominent among the mavericks was a promising young politician named Naoto Kan.

Time was highly impressed with him. So were a lot of people. A year earlier, as health minister from a marginal opposition party brought grudgingly into a floundering coalition, Kan had boldly exposed his ministry’s sordid collusion with drug companies marketing profitable blood products known to cause AIDS. Soon he was back in opposition, bent on reform. His instrument was a new party he helped found, called the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

“Kan is like the Nobunaga Oda of our times — a destroyer,” one of his advisers told Time. Oda was a 16th-century warlord, one of the founding fathers of modern Japan. It’s a comparison no Japanese would make lightly. It’s like comparing an American politician to Washington, or a French one to Napoleon.

Kan’s was a fresh face in an inbred political culture gone poisonously, sclerotically, corruptly stale. He was an idealist in a cut-throat world. His roots were undistinguished — a severe handicap in a country governed overwhelmingly by politicians descended from politicians. Winning a Diet seat in 1980 on his third try, he “attacked policies on everything,” said Time, “from household garbage to nuclear safety. By the end of his first year in office there wasn’t a politician in town who didn’t know him by his nickname: ‘Ira Kan,’ short for ‘irritating Kan.’ “

Supposing, in 1996 or ’97, you’d been asked who you’d want leading Japan in the event of some hypothetical, unimaginably horrific catastrophe. You might well have chosen Kan.

Greater men than he, of course, have been crushed by lesser crises than the very real one he now faces. Still, the descent of this talented, dynamic, visionary leader into almost pathetic irrelevance didn’t begin on March 11. It was well underway long before an earthquake generated a tsunami which smashed, among much else, a nuclear power plant, effectively obliterating, short-term at least, Japan as we know it.

The following anecdote, told by Shukan Gendai, doesn’t really explain anything but it symbolizes much. On March 23 a VIP paid a visit to the 1,200 refugees sheltering as best they could at Watanoha Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. It was done as informally as possible, the VIP declining a security escort in order, he said, not to tie up personnel needed more urgently elsewhere. He told the displaced people how moved he was by their suffering and their endurance. His words didn’t change anyone’s life or make good any losses, but his presence was no doubt cheering, however briefly.

Who was this VIP? asks Shukan Gendai rhetorically. Kan? No — U.S. Ambassador John Roos. Kan, two days earlier, had been scheduled to make a similar appearance at Ishinomaki. He cancelled. Why? Because it was raining.

Well, these visits are little more than photo ops anyway, and one refugee at a shelter Kan did visit probably spoke for many when he sardonically remarked to Kyodo News, “The situation doesn’t change even if the prime minister does come.”

Back in 1997, Time related, Kan and DPJ co-founder Yukio Hatoyama appeared together on a TV news show whose host asked them if they hoped to be prime minister some day. No, said Hatoyama. Yes, said Kan. It was Hatoyama’s fate all the same to precede Kan in office in 2009 when at last, after more than a half-century of near exclusive one-party rule, a major opposition party — theirs — won voters’ confidence. And it was Kan’s to take over when Hatoyama resigned in disgrace a mere nine months later.

Perhaps age — he is now 64; not old but hardly a young Turk any more — has dimmed Kan’s passion. Perhaps he too was infected by the fatalistic defeatism in which Japan had long been wallowing. The “new Japan,” seemingly just around the corner when Time picked him out as a rising star, proved stillborn, or else the gestation period is longer than anyone foresaw in the relatively hopeful ’90s.

Or perhaps it’s the office itself, with its encrusted routines and relentless demands, many of them trivial, that saps a person’s strength and helps explain why so many prime ministers come and go without leaving a mark. Those routines, that triviality, were part of what young Kan, “Ira Kan,” “Kan the Destroyer” was once upon a time so irritable and irritating about, so determined to change.

Imagine the current crisis occurring in 1997 instead of now. Kan, in his prime and in opposition, would have lashed out at a dithering government in much the same language that the weeklies are deploying in chorus against his own administration. “Kan,” fumes Shukan Post, “is not thinking about reviving the country, only about reviving his political fortunes.”

That sort of thing is easy to say. One wonders sometimes how the writers and editors who seem so wise at their keyboards would acquit themselves in action — or how opposition politicians would, given the reins. Oddly, Japan’s history as a democracy provides few examples of opposition figures coming to power. Kan is one. He is being cruelly tested. He’d better recover some of his old fire. Fast.