“Teflon Kan” Survives, but Will Japan?

Taniguchi Tomohiko, former Foreign Ministry deputy press secretary, finds the nickname “Teflon Kan” appropriate for Prime Minister Kan Naoto in light of his survival of a no-confidence measure to hold on to power. Although Kan’s political maneuvers may have won him more time, Japan is losing out under his inept leadership.

Taniguchi Tomohiko, former Foreign Ministry deputy press secretary, finds the nickname “Teflon Kan” appropriate for Prime Minister Kan Naoto in light of his survival of a no-confidence measure to hold on to power. Although Kan’s political maneuvers may have won him more time, Japan is losing out under his inept leadership.

It is rather surprising that Prime Minister Kan Naoto has not yet been labeled “Teflon Kan” by the media inside or outside Japan.

Whenever the moment for Kan to step down as prime minister seems to arrive, he comes up some piece of political razzle-dazzle to hold on a bit longer. The political injuries he has received do not stick to him for long. Political leaders in the past have earned the Teflon label for resembling a non-stick frying pan, like Britain’s “Teflon Tony” Blair, but such politicians have been rare in Japan. Indeed, recent prime ministers like Abe Shinzō and Aso Tarō suffered severe damage and lost their willpower during their terms in office.

Teflon Kan has been elusive in his words and actions. Consider how he called for the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station to shut down its operations without providing clear evidence to back up his decision. And a few hours before the vote on a no-confidence measure, the prime minister suddenly announced his intention to step down. Kan’s hint, a mere hint as would become obvious, that he would leave office was enough to instantly quell the many calls within his own ruling party for him to quit. In the case of Hamaoka, Kan’s decision brought about a situation where it is impossible to resume operations at the nuclear plants shut down during periodic inspections—but of course the Teflon prime minister has not bothered to clarify things.

What Has Japan Lost?

While a single politician—Kan Naoto—does everything possible to remain prime minister, what have Japan and its diplomacy lost in the meantime?

In my view Japan has lost the power of its words, which are the currency and ammunition used in the realm of diplomacy, and has also sacrificed the principles embedded in those words.

Kan has talked about how he wants Japan to rely significantly on alternative, renewable energy sources to generate electricity, but he is willing to turn his back on the power from nuclear energy, which constitutes nearly 30% of Japan’s total power generation. The Japanese economy suffering such an external shock on the supply side could have an irreversible “hysteresis” effect, where negative effects persist far beyond the initial cause. At the least, the outcome will see the most innovative of Japan’s cutting-edge industries heading overseas, never to return, instead of serving as domestic strongholds.

Innovation, in Japan’s case, emerges more frequently from the sites of production than from research centers. But this is another thing that will end up being sacrificed. This is simply unacceptable because it is a recipe for incoherence. I have not heard a word about this from Teflon Kan, who is focused single-mindedly on shaking off his injuries to extend his own political shelf life. Seeing his maneuvers, Japanese people naturally feel ill at ease. Only the most light-minded among them could still consider dancing to the tune Kan is playing.

Words Matter in a Crisis

A national crisis typically inspires political leaders to memorable pronouncements in their speeches. Just recall some of the famous lines of Winston Churchill or of John F. Kennedy. Yet here in Japan—even after a once-in-a-millennium tsunami that claimed some 20,000 lives—we have not heard any words spoken by political leaders that will be remembered among future generations. To think of how clearly one can recall President Kennedy’s line “We choose to go to the moon!”—right down to the sound of his high-pitched Boston accent—only drives home this contrast even more.

Even if outside observers of Japan are emotionally touched by the sight of Japanese people who have no one to turn to, I imagine they are equally astonished that Japanese political leaders have been unable to come up with the language the crisis demands.

There are many diligent people in Japan, but the direction of the nation is unclear. One has absolutely no idea of what sort of country Japan is aiming to become. The lack of appropriate words leads to a lack of respect, stripping Japan of the roots of its diplomatic prowess. This is the tragedy that is now unfolding before our very eyes. (Written on June 29, 2011.)

In this Series
International Relations and the Earthquake Disaster
“Teflon Kan” Survives, but Will Japan? (June 29)
Japan’s “Toynbee Moment” (May 27)
Words of Encouragement from the Youth of Bamiyan (April 22)
The Jet “Martyrs” and the Japanese Government (April 15)

Taniguchi TomohikoTaniguchi Tomohiko

Graduated from University of Tokyo. After working as editor of Nikkei Business, served as deputy press secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Has been a Fulbright Visiting Fellow at Princeton and visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. Now teaches at Keiō University. Publications include Tsūka moyu: En, gen, doru, yūro no dōjidaishi (Currency Drama: A Contemporary History of the Yen, Yuan, Dollar, and Euro).