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In post-quake Japan, no rest for weary government spokesman Edano

For Japanese glued to their television sets these past 10 days, there have been many tragic and indelible images: the monster waves carrying away people and homes; the towns reduced to rubble in the water's wake; evacuees from the area around the Fukushima nuclear plant lining up to be tested for radiation exposure.

Just as familiar is the haggard visage of Yukio Edano - his eyes heavy with fatigue, his black hair slightly unkempt - as he briefs the nation on the latest developments from the nuclear zone and the tsunami-battered area further northeast, always wearing the same light blue emergency services jumpsuit.

"The unprecedented scale of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, frankly speaking, were among many things that happened that had not been anticipated under our disaster management contingency plans," the main government spokesman said last week with typical honesty during one of the dizzying number of news conferences he has given since a monstrous earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Honshu island on March 11, setting in motion the tsunami and nuclear disasters.

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On Sunday, his forehead glistening with sweat, Mr. Edano explained the latest efforts to restore power to the cooling mechanisms and spray water on the overheating Fukushima reactors, as well as detail the levels of radiation found in the spinach and milk produced in the region. As usual, he urged Japanese to remain calm.

In a country desperate for leadership - and with Prime Minister Naoto Kan's performance receiving mixed reviews - Mr. Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, has won public respect and affection through his tireless and blunt updates on the rapidly unfolding situation. Improbably, the 46-year-old is gaining popularity even as Japanese are losing trust in the government he represents.

Mark MacKinnon on Twitter

He's already being touted as the most likely replacement for Mr. Kan if his boss is forced to step aside over his handling of the disasters. One joke circulating in Japan has U.S. President Barack Obama calling Mr. Kan, only to ask if he could speak with Mr. Edano.

Mr. Edano has given an average of five televised news conferences a day - some as early as 5 a.m., others late at night - since the earthquake struck, usually standing beside a Japanese flag that has a black ribbon of mourning attached to it. At one point, he spent four consecutive nights at the prime minister's office before finally heading home to his own bed.

The schedule he has been keeping has taken a visible toll, to the point that some Japanese launched an online campaign via the social networking site Twitter urging Mr. Edano to get some sleep via conversation threads simply titled #edano_go_to_bed and #edano_sleep.

"They need to monitor the radiation levels but they should also monitor Edano's perspiration levels," wrote Arima Tsukamoto, a Twitter user from Toyko.

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"Edano is able to answer the questions even though he hasn't slept," said another admiring Twitter user, mimin2010. One female fan posted on the same site that she would like to "comfort" Mr. Edano since he was working so hard.

"He's become a bit of a folk hero. He's got a fan club going," said Julian Dierkes, a Japan expert at the University of British Columbia's Institute of Asian Research. It's enough to get the rumour mill going that Mr. Edano could replace his boss if and when he's forced to step aside.

Mr. Kan's hold on power was tenuous before the recent string of disasters. On the day the quake struck, he was facing calls to step down after his foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, resigned earlier this month over a funding scandal.

While Mr. Kan, Japan's fifth prime minister in five years, is seen as having directed the tsunami response reasonably well - and his emotional appeal Friday for Japanese to rally around the cause of rebuilding their country was well-received - his government has been out of sync with the private company (Tokyo Electric Power Co.) that operates the Fukushima plant, spreading confusion over what precisely is happening there.

The odds of him retaining office once the crisis wanes, and normal politics resumes, took a blow last week when the United States and other governments began warning their citizens to stay 80 kilometres clear of the Fukushima reactors. Mr. Kan's government has evacuated only a 30-kilometre radius around the plant and has been unable to rescue some of those living closest to the plant.

Mr. Edano, who along with Mr. Kan was one of the founding members of the Democratic Party of Japan in 1996, has managed to come across as someone telling the public everything he knows without portraying himself as necessarily being among those calling the shots. "[Mr. Edano]is presenting himself as a spokesman first, he's not presenting himself as a decision-maker. He's handling that role well," Prof. Dierkes said.

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It's also plain from his media appearances that Mr. Edano, who was born in the city of Utsunomiya, partway between Tokyo and the Fukushima nuclear plant, and graduated from Tohoku University in the tsunami-battered city of Sendai, is personally pained by the devastation of northeast Japan.

"He's a very tough person, so people believe him and they respect him," said Toshifumi Takada, who teaches economics and management at Tohoku University, which sustained mild damage from the earthquake and won't reopen for at least another month. "But if people are going to make the correct decisions, they need to get some sleep."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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