TOKYO, March 20 (Reuters) - Ordinary Japanese people are talking about a new spirit of unity to overcome natural disaster and potential nuclear catastrophe, but their politicians seem as divided and static as ever.
Disasters can dwarf political differences and create unity, as it did for Indonesia’s separatist Aceh region after the 2004 Asian tsunami, but Japan’s new public mood of togetherness has yet to spread in any real way through the corridors of power.
“We must do what we can ourselves to recover from this collapse and revitalise,” said Kotaro Matsuura, a 20-year-old college student in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, beloved of computer nerds and tourists alike for its electronics gadgetry.
“I think the feeling of ‘let’s pull together’ will be linked to a revitalisation of the economy. There is a growing feeling of wanting to boost Japan,” Matsuura said.
There are few encouraging signs, though, that the disaster could be a trigger for Japan to put decades of stagnation and years of policy gridlock behind it, and move ahead with reform.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan attempted on Saturday to capture the unity spirit when he invited the leader of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to join the cabinet as deputy premier for disaster relief.
But the offer was swiftly rejected.
“Our party intends to continue all-out cooperation for recovery from the disaster but this idea is an issue not of disaster measures, but of the framework of the administration itself,” LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki was quoted as saying on the LDP’s website.
“Without prior policy discussions, it was too sudden.”
There is no doubting the enormity of the task facing Japan.
More than 15,000 people are estimated to have been killed by the earthquake and 10-metre tsunami which smashed the country’s northeast coast on March 11, wiping whole towns off the map.
Economists estimate that rebuilding from the disaster will cost as much as $200 billion for an economy already burdened with public debt twice its $5 trillion economy.
In addition to the daunting task of relief and rebuilding, Japan is also struggling to avert nuclear disaster, with one of its biggest nuclear power plants severely damaged by the tsunami and leaking radioactivity into the air and the food chain.
Even before disaster struck, Japan was struggling to find a policy path out of two decades of economic stagnation while coping with the rising welfare costs of a fast-ageing society and with a ballooning public debt.
A divided parliament has not helped.
The ruling Democratic Party controls parliament’s powerful lower house but lacks a majority in the upper chamber, which can block key budget bills and other legislation.
Japanese media have now urged the parties to reach out across the political divide.
“In order for the nation to overcome this crisis, the ruling and opposition parties need to cooperate and unify their perspective,” said an editorial in the Asahi newspaper.
Others voiced hopes on an even grander scale, reflecting a sense of optimism rare in a land better known for deeply ingrained gloom.
“Prior to the quake, Japan was a timid nation worrying about its eventual decline,” wrote Hiroki Azuma, a Waseda University professor, in an opinion piece in the New York Times.
“But maybe the Japanese people could use the experience of this catastrophe to rebuild a society bound together with a renewed trust. While many will revert to their indecisive selves, the experience of discovering our own public-minded, patriotic selves that had been paralyzed within a pernicious cynicism is not likely to fade away.”
Ordinary Japanese have also resisted the temptation to cast blame, at least for now, despite some local media criticism of the prime minister’s crisis management, including claims he focused on the nuclear crisis and paid too little attention to the epic humanitarian disaster.
“Now isn’t the time to point fingers,” said 29-year-old Saori Masada, who was handing out tourist maps in Akihabara, now largely empty of tourists after many foreigners fled Japan.
“We can do that later. I just want the government to do a good job.”
But those who take a professional interest in politics, such as Jesper Koll, director of equity research at JP Morgan Securities Japan, are not counting on a new political order.
“You need to have strong, unified political leadership that lasts, not just from one six-month period to the next,” he said.
“Personally, I’m sceptical.”
Steven Reed, a political science professor at Chuo University in Tokyo, agrees.
“One of the ideas that you get in the mass media and public is that the politicians should stop fighting and do what’s good for the country,” he said.
“But there are different opinions about what’s good for the country. They disagree, and then we’re back to politics.”
Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Mark Bendeich