It is possibly cynical to talk about national and political impacts in the face of Japan's triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown-- when numerous dead have yet to be buried, but it is a fact of history and political life that natural disasters can make or break a politician.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder had been written off for a second term as chancellor when floods struck. By his high visibility, asssumption of leadership during the crisis, pledges of assistance to stricken areas and his monopoly of the media, Schroder turned defeat into victory in 2002 In unfair contrast to Schroder, who became a hero during the flooding, George W. Bush became a scapegoat during Hurricane Katerina and the fallout effectively crippled the balance of his presidency.
Now the spotlight is on Naoto Kan, who in a televised news conference called the situation "the toughest crisis in Japan's 65 years of postwar history We're under scrutiny on whether we, the Japanese people, can overcome this crisis". He has displayed leadership and made decisions, moving 100,000 troops to stricken areas and shutting down utilities and transport systems at risk. Finally, he managed to patch up a deal with the Liberal Democratic Party to issue a special tax to cover reconstruction.
Kan may have temporarily ducked a political bullet. He was facing the same illegal donation charge that felled his foreign minister last week, but the reprieve may be only temporary. Kan is not like FDR, the fresh face coming off an electoral landslide and recognized as the undisputed leader of his party. Kan was battling a sub 20% approval rating before the disasters struck. It is not merely the opposition that wants to see him go, but many in his own party who regard him as a liability.
There is no certainty that the country can dig itself out successfully from the destruction as it did from the worse destruction of the Second World War. There is nobody to advance Japan lavish assistance funding and the Japanese debt is already quite onerous. The earthquake has not changed the problematic Japanese demographics that burden the working age population with supporting a rapidly aging population.
Kan has called upon the public to enlist and this raises two questions: will Japan find the resources within itself to rise up, and is Kan the man who will provide the leadership?