Observers of world affairs often speak of "unimaginable" events, developments which like the end of the Cold War, the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, or the recent Arab revolutions prove stunning not so much because they are illogical but rather because they fall outside the normal range of experience and prediction. The surprise, in other words, arises from a failure of human imagination. Japan's recent disaster fits this pattern. In hindsight there was only a single "black swan" anomaly: the 9.0 earthquake. That such an event, once it had happened, would trigger an enormous tsunami was surely predictable, as was the impact on nuclear facilities that were designed to withstand only more limited shocks and the sickening human and social devastation that would ensue. The political, economic, and strategic implications of the continuing disaster are likewise more foreseeable than was the disaster itself.
The immediate effect of the Japanese catastrophe has been to give new life to a government that was on the verge of collapse. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) rose to power in the autumn of 2009 with a strong electoral mandate, ousting a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that had long maintained a stranglehold on the Japanese political system. Soon, however, the DPJ's mistakes in managing alliance negotiations with the United States, maritime quarrels with China, and feckless economic policies sent the party's approval ratings spiraling downward. After a series of scandals within the upper reaches of the DPJ as well as the government's failure to pass in a timely fashion the enabling legislation necessary to effectuate the budget for fiscal 2011 (which begins in two weeks), Prime Minister Naoto Kan appeared doomed. The situation was so bad that the prestigious Nihon Keizai Shimbun openly queried whether he -- and perhaps even his ruling DPJ -- could survive through the end of March.
The current crisis has given the prime minister a second chance. With thousands of confirmed deaths, some 15,000 persons missing, hundreds of thousands displaced, and several nuclear reactors on the brink of meltdown, this is no time for a change of government. Kan has made reasonably good use of this "rally round the flag" moment, establishing a national crisis management center and dispatching ministers and other staff to deal with various problems. It is still too early to say that he has done enough, but he seems to have improved upon his predecessors' performance after the Kobe Earthquake that took more than 6,000 lives in 1995. Rather than proudly rejecting offers of foreign assistance, for example, Kan quickly accepted all offers of aid, mobilized the military for rescue operations, and appeared frequently on television to calm a nervous public.
Due both to the magnitude of the disaster and to Kan's relatively firm leadership, the opposition has likewise adjusted its position, edging toward a more conciliatory stance on several major issues. Sadakazu Tanigaki, the head of the LDP, and other opposition leaders have thus declared their desire to work together in the formulation and passage of an emergency spending package. The ambit of this new cooperation will probably expand to include the regular budget as well, enabling Kan to obtain Diet approval for the aforementioned enabling legislation. Kan and his party may therefore succeed in gaining several more months of time in which to rebuild their reputation and power -- assuming, naturally, that the trouble at the Fukushima nuclear facility ends without producing yet another catastrophe. But with that caveat, this second opportunity, is for the DPJ, the silver lining on a very dark cloud.