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The Politics of Japan’s Crisis: PM Kan’s Govt. “Very Well Could Fall,” Chang Says

Aaron Task
Editor in Chief
Fin - Daily Ticker - US

"On Sunday, disaster-response teams made progress toward taming the stricken nuclear reactor, restoring electrical power and preparing to restart crucial systems designed to cool the dangerously overheating nuclear material." -- The WSJ

Optimism this weekend about the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant appears to have been misplaced, or at least premature.

Monday was a day of setbacks at the plant as workers were forced to temporarily abandon efforts to spray water on the reactors after black smoke started rising from reactor no. 3 and white smoke (possibly radioactive steam) was spotted coming from reactor no. 2.

In addition, Japanese officials halted shipments of milk and spinach from four prefectures because radiation levels exceeded legal limits while the seawater near the plant is reported to have radioactive cesium 24.8 times higher than normal.

Meanwhile, residents of Iitate, about 30 miles from the plant, were ordered not to drink tap water after high levels of radioactive elements were detected, The NY Times reports.

It's Tuesday morning in Japan as I write this and the situation remains ever-changing, but the news Monday is likely to reinforce the credibility gap facing Japan's government and Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

"The government is going to be blamed for Tokyo Electric [Power] not being entirely candid," says Forbes columnist Gordon Chang. "Tokyo Electric has been very secretive, giving out assessments that are overly optimistic and maybe even devious; basically, Kan's government has taken those assessments and made them public."

In addition, the Kan government initially refused to accept help from the U.S. Last week, U.S. officials, most notably Nuclear Regulatory Commission chief Gregory Jaczko, publicly and privately suggested the Japanese were understating the risks at Fukushima Daiichi.

"In those first days, the Japanese government should have asked the U.S. Navy to bring in its on-board nuclear response teams," Chang says. "If they were brought in perhaps the emergency would not have gone to the point where we are now. This is going to be a problem for the government."

Japan: The New Italy?

While the humanitarian and environmental crisis in Japan are far more important, there are political questions about whether Kan's government will survive the aftermath.

Prior to the quake and tsunami, Kan's government was under pressure amid a scandal over illegal campaign contributions which already prompted the resignation of Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.

"The quake gave Kan a new lease on life," Chang says. "The reason why he's in place today is because nobody wants to change the government in the middle of an emergency."

In addition to its handling of the nuclear crisis, Kan's government is being criticized for its slow relief to communities displaced by the earthquake and tsunami.

"Although the Japanese people are stoic they are people nonetheless," Chang says. "Eventually you're going to see a problem with this government which very well could fall."

If Kan's government does fall, the next Prime Minister would be the sixth in Japan since Junichiro Koizumi retired in 2006.

The instability at the top of Japan is "very disheartening," Chang says. "Japan needs strong leadership right now."

Now, more than ever.