TOKYO - Yukio Edano isn't Japan's official leader. But while the unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan hangs on -- generally out of sight -- his chief cabinet secretary has become the face of the Japanese government as it wrestles with the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl and one of the most horrific tsunami-quakes in history.With the disaster now its second month, the political catcalls have resumed -- Japan's main opposition leader demanded Thursday that Kan step down. The unpopular prime minister was widely expected to resign earlier this year, but has clung to his post while yielding the spotlight to Edano.
Low-key, intense but unfailingly polite, the 46-year-old former lawyer seems less a politician than an elite technocrat. His facial expressions range from utterly neutral, to mildly amused.
Edano has a habit of answering questions with words like "kenkyo" (humility) and "shinshi" (sincerity), as in; "We must humbly listen to our critics."
If Edano's Buddha-like calm borders on surreal, perhaps it's just salve for a traumatized nation's physical and mental wounds.
His frequent public appearances may not be completely reassuring -- the nuclear plant is still raging out of control, after all -- but he has clearly helped dampen the hysteria. That's been an asset, especially early in the crisis when fear and panic over the prospect of a major meltdown were peaking.
(Perhaps he emotes only when in full-throated glory: According to the cabinet secretary's official website, he is a former national chorus champ, junior high division, and now lists karaoke as a hobby.)
After a 40-minute briefing with foreign reporters last weekend, I had just a minute to stroll with the stolid cabinet secretary in the exquisitely appointed gardens of the prime minister's office, from which he's commanded the last month's rescue and recovery efforts.
I asked him about messages on Twitter from Japanese citizens, fretting that he was too busy running the country, to sleep.
Bemused, he said it was only that bad during the first week of the crisis, when he crashed on his office couch for an hour a night.
He left us with entreaties to try the sake (rice wine) from Fukushima. If it's anything like the exceptional Fukushima strawberries (grown 50 miles from the infamous power plant) we sampled, it must be sublime.