Former Japanese PM speaks about leading country through disaster

Naoto Kan, the Prime Minister of Japan from 2010-2011, delivered a public lecture titled "The Truth about the Nuclear Disaster in Fukushima and the Future of Renewable Energy" before a standing-room-only audience in the Statler Auditorium on March 28. His talk was part of the Einaudi Center's Distinguished Speaker Series.  

When Kan took office, he supported the use of nuclear power. His position would undergo a radical change, however, after a March 2011 earthquake off Japan’s coast triggered a devastating tsunami.

The tsunami killed more than 15,000 people, displaced more than 200,000, and swamped the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing meltdowns at three reactors. The event ranks after Chernobyl as the second worst nuclear disaster in history. 

In his book My Nuclear Nightmare, published by Cornell University Press, Kan offers a gripping day-by-day account of his actions in the harrowing week after the earthquake and tsunami. He records the anguished decisions he had to make as the scale of destruction became clear and the threat of nuclear catastrophe loomed ever larger – decisions made on the basis of information that was often unreliable.

Cornell University Press organized a book-signing at the event. Copies of the book can be pre-ordered here.

A long career in politics

Naoto Kan has played key roles in policy-making in Japan as prime minister, deputy prime minister, national strategy minister, and finance minister. He became prime minister in June 2010, succeeding Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned after a turbulent eight-month reign. Kan won the vote for a full term in September 2010.

Kan was accused by the opposition and many in his own party of being too slow to acknowledge the severity of the Fukushima disaster. After a little more than 14 months on the job, he was forced out of office.

Naoto Kan is not from the political elite. The son of a factory manager in the southern prefecture of Yamaguchi, he graduated with a degree in physics from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, ran a patent firm, then became a civic activist, focusing on environmental issues.

In 1980, after three unsuccessful attempts, he won a seat in parliament as part of the tiny Social Democratic Federation. He served as health minister under a coalition deal with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the mid-1990s, becoming very popular after he exposed a scandal involving tainted blood products.

He went on to co-launch the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), establishing the party as a credible opposition force and potential challenger to the LDP, which it helped sweep from power in September 2009. He inherited a divided parliament, a stagnating economy, and massive public debt.