What’s up with the blue jackets?
This is suddenly the question I’m getting when speaking with folks overseas or reading my emails. It’s not whether I feel safe, or if I’m drinking Tokyo’s radioactive tap water or if I plan to make a beeline out of the Fukushima zone. It’s why, oh why, are Japanese leaders dressed like auto mechanics?
It’s to show, of course, they are in full-blown crisis-management mode. We’re engaged, we’re on the ground and we’re working hard. Barack Obama in Washington and David Cameron in London roll up their sleeves to indicate they’re getting their hands dirty. In Tokyo, Naoto Kan gets into blue crisis gear.
The trouble is, this powerful photo-op image isn’t being matched by substance or action. There’s a very valid reason why Kan’s approval rating is a wretched 28 percent: His timidity in the face of Japan’s worst crisis since World War II.
Nowhere is that more apparent than the kid gloves with which he continues to treat Tokyo Electric Power Co. It should have been nationalized 10 days ago and its entire corporate board fired for incompetence and negligence. Each day that passes with Tepco’s leaky nuclear facilities wreaking havoc with the third largest economy further damages Kan’s standing.
Kan has been neither a complete disaster nor inspirer-in-chief for his traumatized nation of 127 million. He’s been something else ― largely irrelevant. That can be seen in a joke making the rounds: U.S. President Obama wants to speak with Japan’s leader about the nuclear crisis. When Kan answers, Obama asked to speak to his spokesman, Yukio Edano.
That Edano has been more visible than Kan during this crisis ― wearing, of course, a blue crisis jacket ― has only heightened the sense that no one is in firm control. Dressing up like a gas-station attendant, doing helicopter fly-bys and addressing the nation with vague platitudes only buttresses the sense that Kan doesn’t get it. Kan has time to turn things around. The question is, can he?
Teetering in the balance is Japan’s economy. It’s amazing that a week ago economists were still arguing Japan would avoid recession. Their mistake was applying conventional thinking to a wildly unconventional scenario. Hyper-modern, neon-sign-crazy Tokyo is now Asia’s answer to Amish country.
Corporate Japan has long been famous not only for its own innovations, but for taking ideas from abroad, improving upon them and making them its own. The Amish, meanwhile, are known for simple living and an aversion to many conveniences of modern technology ― like electricity. I never expected to experience that in gizmo-obsessed Tokyo.
The fallout from the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and still unfolding nuclear crisis is ushering in an age of self-restraint in a city known for consumerism. Not only are normally bustling Prada, Tiffany and Hermes shops empty ― when they’re not closed to save energy ― so are higher-end eateries.
Walking around Tokyo is quite an experience. While the place certainly isn’t a ghost town, it’s eerily quiet. It’s a good thing Tokyo is reasonably crime free. Otherwise, the fact that shops are only turning on a few lights and operating darkly would make the place a shoplifter’s paradise. Many elevators, escalators, heaters and televisions used for advertisements are off. So are other creature-comforts like toilet-seat warmers.
Many pachinko parlors that operate with a jamboree of buzzers, bells and whistles that flows loudly into the street are sound-free. The emptiness of the shelves at the city’s ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores smacks more of Moscow, circa 1986, than Tokyo in 2011. Karaoke clubs are closing early, baseball games are being shifted to daytime and even Tokyo’s fabled cherry-blossom-viewing parties are being scaled back.
Rolling blackouts have created a bull market for LED lamps and flashlights. Suddenly, department stores regret not having bigger camping-equipment sections. Really, who knew? Tokyoites are hoarding bottles of water and toilet paper is frustratingly scarce. My local reggae bar owner told me he’s stopped placing extra rolls in the bathroom. His patrons are stealing them.
And then there are the more headline-grabbing disruptions. Plants run by the likes of Asahi Breweries Ltd., Fuji Heavy Ltd., Meiji Holdings Co., Nikon Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. have been shuttered. Tourists are canceling spring trips to Japan. Many of the foreigners who fled Tokyo have yet to return.
So, economists out there: Still think Japan will experience positive growth this year? That rebuilding efforts in the northeast will be enough to overcome the extent to which Tokyoites and their employers are living the modern-day equivalent of a late 19th century existence? I sure don’t.
Japan wants consumers to spend more and save less. Yet the way Kan’s government has handled this crisis is further dimming economic confidence. Two weeks ago, Kan should have declared a national emergency and, at a minimum, nationalized Tepco (only now is the government mulling just that).
Instead, the message has been of the “life goes on” variety. Well, Tokyoites, with our voluntary self-restraint, are saying that’s obviously not the case. Life here is changing markedly, and neither the economy nor the political scene will ever be the same. Someone should tell the prime minister.
By William Pesek
William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.