Naoto Kan took his first steps in the world of politics around 40 years ago as a pugnacious citizen-activist, admonishing those with power as only those without it can. He likes to say he’s the same man now, but of course there’s an irony in that. After all, in the intervening years he acquired about as much power as an elected official in Japan can hope for — the prime ministership — and the timing of his tenure, coinciding with the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and the ongoing nuclear crisis that followed, will ensure he remains one of Japan’s most talked about prime ministers for years to come.

Kan, who as a member of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) served as prime minister between June 2010 and September 2011, was born into a well-to-do family in Honshu’s far western Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1946.

Influenced by his engineer father, he studied applied physics at Tokyo Institute of Technology where, like many students of the day, he was quickly swept up in the protest movements of the late 1960s and ’70s.

One of the key points of dissatisfaction for the politically awakened Kan was a wave of scandals then beginning to sully the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had held power in Japan since 1955.

Such was Kan’s drive that in 1974, at age 27, he helped orchestrate the return to politics of Fusae Ichikawa, an iconic figure then in her 80s who had campaigned for women’s suffrage before World War II and then played a role in securing it afterward. The success of their campaign — centered around a pledge to clean up politics — helped convince Kan that he, too, had a role to play in the Diet.

After his first campaign as an independent — in 1976 — ended in failure, Kan began working with like-minded politicians to forge parties they hoped would someday be able to topple the LDP. While Kan himself succeeded in winning a seat in the Lower House in 1980, realizing his and his colleagues’ larger goal of defeating the LDP was to be a long and complex process — one that at times came to resemble a quick-tempo square-dance of political alliances and coalitions.

In one iteration, a party called the Socialist Democratic Federation that Kan had helped establish joined with seven other opposition parties — including a breakaway group from the LDP — to install one of their own in the prime minister’s office. That was the famed but unwieldy coalition government of Morihiro Hosokawa which, though it ousted the LDP from power for the first time in 38 years, lasted just eight months, through April 1994.

In 1996, in another iteration, Kan — by then a member of the New Party Sakigake — actually joined in a coalition government with the LDP. For his and his party’s cooperation, Kan was rewarded with his first Cabinet post, that of health and welfare minister.

It was while occupying that office that Kan first demonstrated a knack for ruffling feathers in very public settings. The former-citizen-activist wasted no time in exposing from the inside his ministry’s culpability in a still-simmering 1980s scandal involving HIV-tainted blood products. As a result, more than 1,000 victims were able to secure settlements from the government.

Still, Kan’s first Cabinet stint came to an end in November 1996, around the same time he decided to distance himself from the LDP by joining up with a young politician named Yukio Hatoyama to create the organization that two years later would become the Democratic Party of Japan. It wasn’t until 2009 that he got another taste of power, this time when the DPJ finally defeated the LDP in a general election landslide.

Hatoyama, who was then serving as DPJ head, became prime minister first, but Kan got his turn the following June — just nine months before the nation’s worst postwar disaster.

Late last year, Kan published a book about the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, and the ensuing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco). What becomes clear in the pages of “Toden Fukushima Genpatsu Jiko Sori Daijin Toshite Kangaeta Koto” (“My Thoughts as Prime Minister on the Tepco Fukushima Nuclear Plant Accident”) is that he approached the disasters in the same highly principled but somewhat impolitic way as he had the HIV-tainted-blood scandal.

Once the rattling stopped on that Friday afternoon, Kan’s immediate concern was rescue and relief work for victims of the quake and, an hour later, the tsunami. Acutely conscious of the slow mobilization of the Self-Defense Forces following the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, Kan acted swiftly, ordering the mobilization of 20,000 troops that night. Two days later he increased that to 100,000.

“Activating as many SDF personnel as quickly as possible was the single most important thing I, as prime minister, could do in response to the quake and tsunami,” he said.

Kan’s response to the nuclear crisis was inevitably more complex and — perhaps equally inevitably — more controversial.

As he explains in his book, there were two prime factors influencing his thinking. The first was that the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the government body tasked with formulating responses to large-scale nuclear accidents, couldn’t provide him with sufficient information upon which to make decisions.

Consequently, Kan felt he had to base the swiftly established nuclear emergency response headquarters close to hand, in the Prime Minister’s Office. He also assumed a particularly hands-on role for himself in gathering information.

The second factor stemmed from the first. Without advice from the NISA, Kan started thinking to himself about how a worst-case scenario might end up involving the evacuation of Tokyo — a hunch he says was given scientific backing on March 25 when Japan Atomic Energy Commission chairman Shunsuke Kondo presented him with a similar scenario.

If that had happened, said Kan, “the effect on the nation would have been akin to a war.”

Such fears informed many of Kan’s early decisions — in particular his controversial “storming” of Tepco’s Tokyo headquarters on March 15 in response to reports the company intended to pull all their staff out of the Fukushima facility.

That action, and many of his other decisions during and after the crisis, form the subject of a frank interview Kan gave to The Japan Times earlier this month at his Diet office. He also reflected more generally on his career to date and shared his now fervent opposition to nuclear power — a technology he believes is doomed to obsolescence.

You started your political career as an independent, and lost your first three election campaigns. What motivated you to keep on trying?

It wasn’t a desire to become a politician, per se. I came to it through citizens’ movements. In 1974, I managed one of the last political campaigns of Fusae Ichikawa. We wanted to clean up politics.

It was the same when I first ran for office myself, in 1976. The Lockheed Scandal (in which the U.S. company was exposed as having paid bribes to Japanese politicians to secure sales of its warplanes and airliners) had just come to light and former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka had been arrested.

Why had corporate money been able to sway Japanese politicians like that? Because Japanese politics had been allowed to rot as the Liberal Democratic Party had been in power for so long. My goal was to help establish a political system in which power could actually change hands between political parties.

In 1977, I joined with Saburo Eda in forming the Socialist Citizens’ Federation, and that changed into the Socialist Democratic Federation the following year. I was first elected (to the Diet) in 1980.

In 1993 you were still in the Socialist Democratic Federation when, along with seven other parties, you succeeded in snatching power from the LDP. That must have been satisfying.

In 1993, Japanese elections were still run on the “medium-size constituency system,” with three-, four- and five-member electoral districts. At the time there were 133 electoral districts, and about 500 seats, but opposition parties were lucky to get more than one seat in a single district — so there was little hope of them ever securing power.

What changed in the 1993 election was not that the largest opposition party, the Social Democratic Party of Japan, grew strong, but that a movement arose within the LDP itself to reform the electoral system, so a faction left the LDP and combined with the opposition parties. We were thus able to take power. It was a very special set of circumstances — very different from the kind of change you might see overseas.

Nevertheless, it was significant, because as a coalition, we implemented electoral reform, replacing the medium-size constituency system with the current system, which combines single-seat constituencies and proportional representation. This allowed the focus to be more on parties rather than individuals. [Under the old system, with multiple seats up for grabs in each district, candidates from the same party would compete against each other, resulting in campaigns focused more on the person than the party.]

It was because of the 1994 electoral reforms that the DPJ was eventually able to grow strong enough to win power in 2009.

Especially in light of that, you must have been very happy to be able to win power in 2009.

Well yes, (but) as I said, in 1976 when I started doing this, that was the goal. It took 33 years, but we achieved it.

And yet the DPJ lasted only three years in power. Some people wonder if it actually meant anything at all. How do you respond to such criticism?

Well, you have to remember something like this had never happened before. The DPJ demonstrated to the populace that it is possible for another party to kick the LDP out. That in itself was an important achievement.

Beyond that, there were two types of policies achieved by the DPJ. The first were those that ran counter to what the LDP had done. Just as our slogan, “From Concrete to People,” described, we put the emphasis on people, abandoning the LDP approach of circulating money through public-works projects. It was a fundamental shift and one that the LDP can’t easily undo. With the child allowance, for example, they changed the name, but the program continues.

The second type of policies achieved by the DPJ were those that the LDP had wanted to do, but couldn’t, because they might lose an election — such as raising the consumption tax. Successive LDP administrations put that off. I actually announced a timeline for doing it. And, in a way, I have to apologize to my fellow DPJ members for that.

It was because I announced the tax increase that the House of Councilors election in July 2010 went so badly for us (the DPJ lost control of that Upper House). But the fact is that my generation had to do something about this problem. We couldn’t put it off any longer.

So in a way you sacrificed yourself to raise the consumption tax?

I wouldn’t use that word, but we were facing a situation of massive unemployment among the young. The society was breaking down. Thinking of that risk, we had no choice.

These achievements aren’t really recognized as such — particularly domestically. Everyone says we failed, but when you ask them what exactly they think we failed to achieve, they just say, “Ah it was a failure.” The mass media painted a picture of failure.

I think if there is one thing we really did get wrong, then it was our management of the party itself. There were always disagreements and splits. We can’t make any excuses for those.

In addition to your desire to clean up politics, another motivation for your political career was your background in science. How did you get from there to politics?

When I was small I never thought I would become a politician. My father was an engineer and he would talk to me about all sorts of things — like why a steel drum floats. He also spoke a lot about the (Greek mythology) story of Prometheus and how he gave humans the gift of fire.

Science is supposed to be for the good of mankind. But sometimes it can also lead to nuclear weapons or to pollution, so it can have negative effects, too. Of course, you hope the positives will outweigh the negatives, but at the same time you have to control the negatives. And how do you do that? The answer is politics.

Given your interest in science, I’d like to ask you about your sense of responsibility for the failures that laid the groundwork for the March 2011 nuclear crisis: The fact that the so-called “myth of the safety of nuclear power” had become so entrenched; why Tepco had not been forced to mitigate against a massive tsunami; and the woeful inadequacy of the government’s nuclear emergency manuals. As a prominent politician for 30 years, you must feel some responsibility.

When I first stood for election I was quite critical of nuclear power. The Socialist Democratic Federation’s policy was that nuclear power was only a temporary source of energy. But as the party became larger and grew into the DPJ, the fact is that I, too, became influenced by the myth of nuclear power’s safety.

Somewhere inside me I just believed that, with Japan’s technological proficiency, an accident would not occur. I greatly regret that optimism now.

It was also a fact that from a certain time in Japan it became extremely difficult to criticize nuclear power. There was a real conglomeration of power around it — and not just inside the LDP, but in the opposition parties, the media and academia, too. This was the so-called nuclear village. I was pushed into submission by that. It really is a point of regret for me.

But it’s because of that regret that, since March 11, 2011, I have been so vocal in saying that as a country we can do without nuclear power.

What was the single most important contribution you made in the response to the nuclear crisis?

In a fire or a natural disaster, when it gets really dangerous, you have the option of escaping and letting it burn out. But a nuclear accident is different. With a nuclear accident, running away and coming back later would make the problem exponentially worse.

Fukushima had six reactors at the No. 1 site, and four at the second (No. 2) site. It had 11 pools for storing used nuclear fuel. If all those had become uncontrollable, then there could have been many times more nuclear fallout than from Chernobyl. Radiation would have fallen over a very large area, including Tokyo — possibly requiring the evacuation of 50 million people. That would have dealt a massive blow to the country.

My responses were informed by this understanding of the risks involved. With so much at stake, I knew we had to do everything in our power to bring the reactors under control, even if it meant putting the lives of responders at risk.

Hence, when — on the morning of March 15 — I heard that Tepco wanted to evacuate the plant, I went to tell them that such a move was unacceptable. Of course I knew it was dangerous for people to be at the plant, but leaving it would have put many times more people in danger.

I told the Self-Defense Forces the same: They had to contain this even at risk to their own safety. The fire department was the same. I don’t think my approach was wrong.

That visit to Tepco headquarters on March 15 attracted much criticism. People say you yelled and tried to micromanage the situation — and Tepco says they never intended to pull all their staff, but just to reduce it to a minimum. Importantly, though, you also created a joint command center between the government and Tepco, and in your book you say that from then on the responses became more coordinated. It seems obvious that creating a unified command center was the right thing to do. Why didn’t you do it earlier?

There are laws that address nuclear accidents and name the departments that are supposed to deal with them. The laws state that, if a severe nuclear accident occurs, a nuclear emergency response headquarters is created and the prime minister becomes its head. The headquarters itself is to be managed by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) — a body within the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Before becoming prime minister, I had done stints as health minister and finance minister. In both ministries there were many specialists — in finance or in health. In naming the NISA as the manager of this emergency committee, the law anticipated that it would take the lead in gathering the kind of information that would be necessary for the committee to make decisions.

We made the committee, but the NISA was unable to provide any information — not about what was happening at Tepco, nor at the plant — nothing. That is why I decided I had to gather information myself and why, on the morning of the 12th, I decided to visit the plant and talk directly with those in charge there.

March 15 was the same. According to the law, the on-site response to a nuclear disaster was to be managed by the power plant’s operator. And in some ways, that is obvious — after all, it is their factory. But while the response at the plant was fine, Tepco’s headquarters in Tokyo was not functioning properly.

So you say I should have gone earlier; well, if I had the benefit of hindsight, then yes, I would have gone earlier. But, if you look at the Three Mile Island accident (a partial reactor meltdown at that nuclear power plant in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania in 1979) and, in particular, at the Chernobyl disaster (in 1986), the response for the whole first week was an absolute panic.

From 2:46 p.m. on March 11 till 4:30 a.m. on March 15 — it took less than 100 hours for it to become clear that we needed to make a joint command center. Of course, if I had the benefit of hindsight I would have done it earlier.

Jumping forward a few months: As you started publicly voicing your reservations about nuclear power you became the target of severe criticism over your handling of the crisis. In fact, when 70 percent of the population supported phasing out nuclear power generation, and you were the most prominent politician who was actually agreeing with that sentiment, your support rate plummeted to just 17 percent. That seems paradoxical. How do you account for it?

I guess the fact is that the nuclear power policy and my own support rate were disconnected. The reasons I wanted to quit nuclear power were, for one, the fact that the risks involved had become so clear to me as a result of the crisis; and two, there was something that I already understood: We could get by without relying on nuclear power. I knew there were viable alternatives.

But I failed to convey those two messages to the public. The message that got out through the media was all negative — that Kan made the nuclear accident worse, that he was delaying the recovery.

What I find more worrying, though, is that even after that crisis there were still 30 or 40 percent of the population who supported nuclear power.

It is men in particular who support nuclear power. Women seem not so keen, perhaps because they worry about children. The idea that nuclear power enabled Japan’s economic development is deeply ingrained.

People also say Japan should keep nuclear power because the resulting plutonium has value in terms of security — that it acts as a nuclear deterrent. The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper stated that in an editorial in September 2011.

That way of thinking has been around since the time nuclear power was first introduced into Japan. People like Prime Minister (Yasuhiro) Nakasone (in office 1982-87) were of that opinion, and so too are some members of the DPJ, even today.

As an opponent of nuclear power, how do you respond to their arguments?

Well, on the basis of the U.S.-Japan security alliance, a nuclear deterrent exists in the form of the American nuclear arsenal.

Japan is the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, so in public almost everyone, including those in the LDP, say they want to rid the world of nuclear weapons. But in terms of guarding Japan’s independence, some people think, even if they’d don’t say so, that Japan should possess such weapons.

I actually think this problem is even more basic than politics. Nuclear war is something that destroys not countries but mankind itself. But politicians have to make up their minds. I believe that Japan’s security issues are covered by the U.S.-Japan security alliance. Others, like [prominent nationalist politician] Shintaro Ishihara, believe Japan should possess nuclear weapons.

In June 2011 you faced a binding no-confidence motion in the Diet and, in response, you promised to resign, but only after a number of conditions were met. One of those conditions was the passing of a law that would oblige utilities to buy energy produced from renewable sources — the feed-in tariffs (FIT) system. Has that law had the effect you hoped for?

Ending our reliance on nuclear power was going to require two things — quitting use of and dispensing with the power plants themselves and also securing alternative energy sources.

So getting renewable energy up to a level where it can meaningfully supplement nuclear power was important. The FIT law was passed in August 2011, I believe, and came into effect in July 2012, and it is having a big effect. This year, it seems, Japan will have the fastest level of growth in solar power energy generation in the world.

As an opponent of nuclear power, you were placing a lot of faith in one law.

Well yes, but that was just half the story. The other half was actually ridding the country of nuclear power. And, to be honest, there was more I wanted to do on that front. What I really wanted to do was to take nuclear power generation away from the private utilities — in particular Tepco. But, in the midst of the political machinations, the most I could do was the feed-in tariffs system. I think it has had a big impact.

The other part was carried on by (Prime Minister Yoshihiko) Noda [Kan’s successor], and he succeeded in creating the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA), and so on. I think that fight will continue.

Will it? That seems unlikely under the LDP.

On the domestic political front, sure, we are certainly going backwards, but if you look at the tendencies around the world, the world itself is moving in the same direction as me.

For example, in June I participated in a talk organized by opponents of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (in California). Two days after that symposium it was decided that the plant would be decommissioned.

The reason they quit that power plant was not just because of the opposition movement, but also because cheaper alternatives have emerged — shale gas and so on. Nuclear power is actually expensive, especially if you think about disposal of the used fuel.

The countries that are currently trying to make nuclear power plants are not doing it because it is cheap. They either want plutonium, for security, or they want energy independence — if they were to buy natural gas from Russia, they would be controlled by Russia. The motivation is political, not economic.

The other point to make about Japan’s domestic situation is that we have yet to see whether the NRA will assert itself. It is currently investigating whether or not an active fault runs beneath (Kansai Electric Power Co.’s) Oi nuclear power plant (in Fukui Prefecture). They are saying that if a positive finding emerges they will stop the plant. But will they be able to stick to their guns or will they buckle under political pressure?

What do you make of the current problems of radiation-contaminated water leaking into the Pacific Ocean?

When the plant was constructed back in the late 1960s they actually excavated a bluff so that they could build it lower down and closer to the sea’s level. It is a site where groundwater naturally seeps from the mountains and into the sea.

So the risk of what’s happening now was recognized early on (after the March 2011 events), and I instructed the joint crisis headquarters to consider a suggestion that subterranean walls be built down to the bedrock around the plant. But Tepco decided that was going to be too expensive, and opted only to build a wall on the seaward side. [Construction began in October 2011.] What’s happening now demonstrates that this piecemeal approach was insufficient.

Now the proposal is to make a wall of frozen soil around the plant, which will apparently be cheaper because underground utilities going into the plant — cables and so forth — will not have to be severed.

You have said you are going to work to achieve a Japan that is not reliant on nuclear power. What concrete moves will you actually make?

As I said at the outset, I was an activist to begin with. I created a political party and eventually achieved a change in the administration. Now I have returned to my roots, really. Going and speaking in California like that is a form of activism. I’ve also been invited to go and talk in Taiwan. So in that way, across a broad front, I will continue to be active to achieve the scrapping of nuclear power.

I really look forward to creating an international network in this field. At the same time, I want to work to promote green industries. Japan is good at those.


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