Gaffes Claim Another Japanese Minister. When Will They Ever Learn?

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Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yoshio Hachiro, appointed only a week ago, bows as he leaves the conference room after announcing his resignation at the ministry in Tokyo on September 10, 2011. (Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP / Getty Images)

For a country whose language is shaded in infinite shades of gray, Japanese government ministers sure do make a lot of gaffes. Last Saturday, Japan’s new trade minister Yoshio Hachiro quit after visiting the tsunami-devastated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant zone and calling it a “town of death without a soul in sight,” while also joking with a journalist near him that “I will give you radiation.” Hachiro had been in the job for just over a week. But it was long enough to show just how disconnected Tokyo’s politicians are with the overwhelmed nation’s populace.

Hachiro’s resignation came one day short of the six-month anniversary of Japan’s triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, which killed some 20,000 people. If times of crisis are supposed to breed visionary leadership, Japan has utterly failed. The verbally maladroit trade minister was the pick of new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s sixth leader in five years. There is little to suggest that Noda, a former finance minister who appears to have risen the ranks of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) largely by keeping his head down, will distinguish himself any more than his predecessors did.

On Monday, Hachiro was replaced by Yukio Edano, a reformist lawyer who was one of the few Japanese politicians to acquit himself admirably in the post-tsunami period. As the Chief Cabinet Secretary for Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s beleaguered administration, he appeared on television day in and day out after the March 11 natural disaster, tirelessly briefing the public despite little sleep and formidable bags under his eyes. While Edano may have been a nuclear neophyte when he first began serving as the government’s post-tsunami spokesman, his explanatory attempts—even as those in top levels of government couldn’t seem to get straight answers from nuclear-power executives and nuclear-agency bureaucrats—won him plaudits. But there’s a big difference between explaining what’s going on and guiding an economy.

As the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Edano will be in charge of reviving Japan’s ailing nuclear-power industry, which was allowed by government bureaucrats to operate even while regularly flouting regulations. Although most Japanese want to phase out atomic energy, P.M. Noda has said the nation has little choice but to rely on nuclear power in order to fuel its sagging economy. (Around one-third of Japan’s power before March 11 was generated by nuclear power, but most atomic power plants have since been shuttered for maintenance.) Around 80,000 people were displaced by the nuclear crisis. Countless more Japanese have given up on securing any sense of political stability from their leaders.