A week after Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami, the scale of the humanitarian crisis is only starting to become clear, even as relief efforts are overshadowed by the on-going crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Any government, even one as ostensibly well-prepared as Japan's, would be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task confronting it.
Heavy snow is now covering some of the most damaged area, like Minamisanriku village, which was almost entirely washed away by the tsunami. Millions remain without water and electricity, while food, blankets, and medicine are running low. Japanese television has begun to run information programs on how to deal with basic sanitation issues, including using makeshift diapers out of towels and plastic bags. The bodies of victims continue to be collected, while thousands remain unaccounted for.
Yet as the initial shock wears off, the focus will increasingly shift to the Japanese government's response to the catastrophe. Tokyo's handling of the nuclear crisis—which has veered between apparent competence at some times and seeming helplessness at others—bodes ill as millions continue to suffer without basic necessities. How the government responds will determine the next decades of Japan's history.
In times of crisis, nations look to their leaders. Unfortunately, Japan's leader, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, enjoyed the support of less than 20% of the population before this crisis hit. Talk in Tokyo was of how long Mr. Kan could survive.
Only days before the earthquake, news broke that Mr. Kan could become embroiled in the kind of campaign finance scandal that had already unseated Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara. With the Diet in deadlock over budget authorization bills, it seemed only a matter of time before a political crisis brought down the fifth Japanese leader in as many years.
Sometimes crises can bring out admirable sides of unpopular politicians and help them regain public support. This doesn't appear to be one of those times. Mr. Kan has not been the most visible face of public government pronouncements. That role has fallen to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. Mr. Edano has been the official spokesman during the nuclear crisis, with Mr. Kan staying less visible.
This is a huge problem at a time when the public wants leadership and accountability. A hostile press has been on the attack against the Tokyo Electric Power Company, operator of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Mayors of devastated towns have taken to the airwaves begging Tokyo for crucial support. Mr. Kan's government, perhaps understandably, has been slow to deliver.
Japan's political equilibrium has traditionally been built on a social compact whereby citizens accepted extensive, often intrusive, government ordering of society in exchange for the unnervingly competent performance of public duties by those who govern.
Contrary to what some outsiders may believe, however, the hierarchical nature of Japanese society has not been a license for official abuse or neglect of responsibility.
For instance, popular culture is filled with stories of crusading do-gooders punishing avaricious officials. The Tokugawa era saw thousands of peasant revolts against unjust authority.
This tradition may well be returning to Japanese political life, albeit peacefully, as voters in recent years have turned out majority parties in both houses of the Diet. Before the earthquake, many believed that the Democratic Party of Japan was going to lose the majority it won as recently as 2009. Now there is a bigger shadow hanging over Japanese politics.
A bungled earthquake response will not endanger Japan's democratic constitutional order per se. But within that democratic framework, mounting public anger at officials can do a lot of harm. The greatest danger is that the Japanese, seeing the ineptitude of their government in their hour of greatest need, will simply lose faith in the political system.
This cynicism could be corrosive, eating away at the hopes and aspirations that first prompted voters to demand more from their politicians in 2009 when they ousted the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party in favor of Mr. Kan's Democratic Party of Japan. Alternately, it could result in massive political activism and demands for sweeping change in political parties.
Faith in politicians is already eroding rapidly. Witness the back-and-forth between Japan and the West over how best to protect residents of the area around Fukushima. Japanese see their government issuing one set of guidelines, including a 20-mile exclusion zone, while also issuing a steady stream of contradictory statements about how serious the problem is.
Meanwhile, Australia, Britain and the U.S. issue much stronger warnings to their own citizens living in Japan, and Washington is urging Americans to evacuate affected areas. This creates the impression, reinforced by ample past experience, that Tokyo is not being forthcoming about the magnitude of the crisis.
As for the humanitarian response, the government in Tokyo is receiving support from dozens of nations, above all the U.S, but also China, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia and India. Japanese NGOs have swung into action as well, using their experience from the 1995 Kobe earthquake and other disasters around the globe.
Yet at the end of the day, the citizens will hold Mr. Kan and his ministers accountable. Given the sheer magnitude of what they must accomplish under the most difficult circumstances, that may not be fair. But it is the way of democratic states.
The great Tohoku earthquake has changed Japan in ways no one can yet envision. Japanese society has revealed profound strengths in the midst of unimaginable hardship. All eyes will now turn to the government to look for the same strengths.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.