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What Japan’s Former Prime Minister Thinks of Abe’s Response to COVID-19

Online media briefing here:

Naoto Kan, the former Prime Minister of Japan, does not seem impressed with Prime Minister Abe’s response to COVID-19. As a member of the House of Representatives in the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (an opposition party) and an ex-Prime Minister, Rep. Kan has repeatedly criticized his successor’s response to the virus on Twitter. On May 18, 2020, Rep. Kan spoke to a group of journalists at an online media briefing at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) to clarify and expand on his views. The briefing raised questions of when and how political leaders should make decisions concerning scientific and medical issues, and to what extent predecessors should comment on following administrations’ responses to them.

On April 30, Kan tweeted, “Prime Minister Abe doesn’t know how to make judgements. He simply listens to “experts’” advice, and does not say as Prime Minsiter—politically, the supreme leader—how he would make judgments.” When asked to clarify this tweet at the FCCJ media briefing on May 18, he said, “First, you [Prime Minister Abe and the administration, as well as other politicians] need to listen to these experts’ opinions, but on top of that, it is up to the administration and politicians to make judgments on issues, for example those relating to finance or legal issues.” Rep. Kan added that Prime Minsiter Abe did not distinguish between experts’ advice and his views as a political leader, and urged the Prime Minister to take responsibility for decisions outside the experts’ fields.

The global pandemic has also elevated global governance as a priority. In addition to delegating and distinguishing between experts’ advice and political responsibilities, responses to the coronavirus should exceed the national sphere, said Rep. Kan. He alluded to Yuval Harari, the author of Homo Sapiens, to argue that international cooperation would be necessary for the future. He quoted Harari in the Financial Times: “In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.” Rep. Kan added that "It is clear to anybody that international cooperation will be essential.”

He said his responsibility as Prime Minister had required comprehensive judgments. He had led the Japanese government during triple disaster, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and later, nuclear power plant meltdowns. On March 11, 2011, earthquakes hit Japan’s northeast, as well as the Kanto region, including Tokyo. Tsunamis followed, swallowing people and towns. Given the magnitude of the earthquakes and tsunamis, nuclear power plants in Fukushima failed to operate; the plants’ meltdowns made much of the prefecture uninhabitual. The Kan administration then decided to evacuate Fukushima residents and relocated them to kasetsu juutaku—temporary housing. The problems extended beyond the disaster and ground zero as the country struggled to process what had hit them. At the briefing, Rep. Kan explained that a day after the earthquake, he visited the site to speak with Masataka Shimizu, the then-President of the Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc. which was responsible for the nuclear power plants. Rep. Kan said that although the President had expressed his wish to withdraw onsite employees, Kan had defied, explaining that it would have “devastated the country” had the onsite employees left the site.

Crises not only raise expectations of ruling parties, but depending on the administrations’ responses, they also call for regime changes. Before the triple disaster, Kan’s approval rate had fallen below 20 percent. However, his approval rate rose to 28.3 percent after the disaster hit, according to a Kyodo News poll. But the support was ephemeral. Then-Prime Minister Kan resigned in 2011, the year of the triple disaster. And in 2012, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a landslide victory, paving the path for a ruling party that had previously dominated the Japanese government.

Rep. Kan’s criticism of the COVID-19 raises questions of how much (or how little) leaders should make decisions concerning science and medical issues, and how much predecessors should comment on—or get involved in—the current administration’s decision-making. It also compels us to look at our history and extract lessons from previous disasters, while also assessing each context and making decisions accordingly.

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