Japan desperate for leadership By Simon Tisdall - Monday, March 14, 2011

Source : http://www.dawn.com/2011/03/14/japan-desperate-for-leadership.html

NAOTO Kan, Japan’s prime minister, faced a mountain of problems before the earthquake. Hours before disaster struck, Kan was insisting he would not resign over the latest party funding scandal. Such declarations have become a bit of a ritual in Japanese political life, and often presage collapse: the country has had six prime ministers in five years. But right now Japan needs strong leadership like never before.
Kan moved swiftly to take charge, urging MPs to help him “save the country”, ordering troops into the worst-affected areas and shutting down high-risk nuclear plants and transport systems. He is surely aware of the fate of leaders who fail to rise to the occasion of natural disasters. Taiwan’s premier, Liu Chao-shiuan, was forced out in 2009 after his government mishandled typhoon Morakot. George Bush was almost blown away by hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Perceptions of Kan’s performance will affect Japan’s political course. According to Eurasia Review, his approval rating is 20 per cent low even by Japanese standards. His Democratic party (DPJ) has lost its way since beating the long-governing Liberal Democrats (LDP) in 2009. This month an Asahi Shimbun poll found 62 per cent think the government is doing a bad job.
If Kan’s leadership impresses, he could acquire the impetus to win crucial budget battles and push through much-needed reforms of party funding. The LDP, whose sole interest until now has been bringing down the DPJ, says it will cooperate with the government and support spending measures.
Money will be needed — lots of it, judging by the pictures of damage in the Tohoku region. It will not be easy to find. “Based on any stretch of the imagination, Japan is not in a good position to deal with a massive natural disaster,” the Hong Kong economist Robert Subbaraman told the Wall Street Journal. The country’s debt burden is the worst in the industrialised world, at nearly 200 per cent of annual economic output, the Wall Street Journal’s William Sposato noted. He said the government had “little room to borrow the funds that may be needed for rebuilding”. The 1995 Kobe quake that killed 6,400 people caused $100bn of damage, the most expensive natural disaster in history. This quake was bigger, but hit less populated areas. Tohoku accounts for only eight per cent of GDP.
Japan’s economy is better able to cope now than previously, but an ageing population, the loss of lifetime corporate employment and an expensively subsidised agricultural base contribute to perceptions that the country’s luck has run out after decades of record-breaking post-war expansion.
Arch-rival China is now the world’s second largest economy, a title Tokyo held for more than 40 years. While Japan grew by 3.9 per cent last year, China’s growth rate was more than double that. China’s military might grows exponentially while Japan cuts defence spending. North Korea’s military stunts, which almost provoked a war with South Korea last year, are an unwelcome reminder of Japan’s shaky geostrategic position. Maybe Pyongyang will offer earthquake help: it would be a positive if unexpected gesture. Beijing already has. — The Guardian, London

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