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[William Pesek] Lady Gaga is shaming those spending $309 billion

You know things are bad when pop stars a world away get more fired up about a humanitarian crisis than a nation’s own leaders.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan would no doubt take umbrage at this assertion. Many of Japan’s 126 million residents wouldn’t, as television cameras that had been fixed on the nuclear fiasco in Fukushima turn further north. We are getting an eyeful of millions in earthquake-devastated areas living without power, heat, water, adequate food or medicine.

This is shocking in wealthy, obsessively efficient Japan. It’s also shocking that Lady Gaga, Rihanna, U2, Sonic Youth, Norah Jones and Lou Reed seem more concerned about it than Kan’s team. Lady Gaga, for example, has been selling special bracelets on her website to fund relief efforts.

Granted, Kan has been busy overseeing a radiation crisis that’s now tainted Tokyo’s tap water. Yet the odds favor Kan soon making way for the fifth premier in less than five years. Were elections held today, many Japanese would turn the keys over to Yukio Edano, Kan’s deputy.

We’ll get to Edano later. For now, let’s consider the scale of the damage from this crisis trifecta: a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, a 7-meter (23-foot) tsunami and those radiation leaks. Yesterday, Japan estimated the costs at as much as 25 trillion yen ($309 billion), almost four times the hit Hurricane Katrina imposed on the U.S.

The bill will be much higher and the economic losses will be much greater than currently believed. Tokyo Electric Power Co. said yesterday its capacity will fall 34 percent short of last summer’s peak demand.

Just take a walk through Tokyo’s normally buzzing Shibuya or Ginza districts at 4 p.m. Department stores are already closing for the day to save electricity. Nissan Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. are struggling to repair damage and resume production because of power shortages as nuclear plants are idled. The long-term cost is only beginning to get counted.

All this is having an intangible, yet steadily growing effect on business and consumer confidence. Here, it’s worth exploring how the humanitarian crisis in the northeast might affect the nation’s psyche.

Japanese life is surrounded by a bewildering abundance of food, creature comforts and everyday commodities. It has one of the highest per-capita incomes on the planet and its public sector is obsessed with effectiveness. While bureaucratic for sure, Japan really works on most levels. That’s prompted the entire nation to wonder why, oh why, it’s taking so long to get supplies to areas devastated by the March 11 quake?

Things are improving, if not nearly fast enough from the victim’s perspective. This crisis is on a far greater scale than the 1995 Kobe earthquake. It’s harder to reach today’s quake victims and Kobe didn’t suffer tsunami damage. Still, by now remoteness is less of an excuse. About 90 percent of highways damaged by the temblor are open to the public.

One problem is that Kan’s team, in office for just nine months, has been too focused on the drama at the Fukushima nuclear reactors. While that’s a clear priority, a bit more multitasking was called for. Another problem is red tape.

Things probably aren’t improving fast enough to save Kan from the dustbin of prime ministers past. Before the quake, he faced questions about a fund-raising scandal that forced his foreign minister to resign. Kan also hasn’t passed badly needed economic reforms.

That brings us to Edano, a reasonably fresh face in Japanese politics. In January, Kan tapped the 46-year-old as his chief cabinet secretary, a post combining the roles of deputy and chief of staff. During this crisis, Edano has won plaudits from Japan’s public for his direct, matter-of-fact assessments. His daily press briefings have been a nice antidote to the arrogance and obfuscation stemming from Tepco, as Tokyo Electric is known.

I’m not alone in trusting Tepco about as much as I do Kim Jong-il’s North Korean news agency. At a time when many Japanese didn’t know who to trust, Edano was a steady voice of reason that embodied Kan’s strategy of transparency. Scores of Twitter accounts have sprung up to celebrate his work ethic. Hence the buzz about Edano being a possible successor.

Japan hasn’t had a prime minister who excited people since the 2001-2006 stint of Junichiro Koizumi, who was as much celebrity as politician. The bookish, earnest Edano lacks Koizumi’s pizzazz, never mind that of Lady Gaga or Bono. Yet he has morphed into a national celebrity. Edano may just be the right one at the right time.

By William Pesek

William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.