A Dearth of Candor From Japan’s Leadership

This New York Times article by Hiroko Tabuchi, Ken Belson and Norimitsu Onishi appeared in Thursday morning’s paper, and tells an extremely important  side of the story that deserves to be better understood here.

A Dearth of Candor From Japan’s Leadership

TOKYO — With all the euphemistic language on display from officials handling Japan’s nuclear crisis, one commodity has been in short supply: information.

When an explosion shook one of many stricken reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Saturday, power company officials initially offered a typically opaque, and understated, explanation.

“A big sound and white smoke” were recorded near Reactor No. 1, the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power, announced in a curt memo. The matter “was under investigation,” it added.

Foreign nuclear experts, the Japanese press and an increasingly angry and rattled Japanese public are frustrated by government and power company officials’ failure to communicate clearly and promptly about the nuclear crisis. Pointing to conflicting reports, ambiguous language and a constant refusal to confirm the most basic facts, they suspect officials of withholding or fudging crucial information about the risks posed by the ravaged Daiichi plant.

The sound and white smoke on Saturday turned out to be the first in a series of explosions that set off a desperate struggle to bring four reactors under control after their cooling systems were knocked out by the earthquake and tsunami.

Evasive news conferences followed uninformative briefings as the crisis intensified over the past five days. Never has postwar Japan needed strong, assertive leadership more — and never has its weak, rudderless system of governing been so clearly exposed. With earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis striking in rapid, bewildering succession, Japan’s leaders need skills they are not trained to have: rallying the public, improvising solutions and cooperating with powerful bureaucracies.

“Japan has never experienced such a serious test,” said Takeshi Sasaki, a political scientist at Gakushuin University. “At the same time, there is a leadership vacuum.”

Politicians are almost completely reliant on Tokyo Electric Power, which is known as Tepco, for information, and have been left to report what they are told, often in unconvincing fashion.

In a telling outburst, the prime minister, Naoto Kan, berated power company officials for not informing the government of two explosions at the plant early Tuesday morning.

“What in the world is going on?” Mr. Kan said in front of journalists, complaining that he saw television reports of the explosions before he had heard about them from the power company. He was speaking at the inauguration of a central response center of government ministers and Tepco executives that he set up and pointedly said he would command.

The chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency said late Tuesday in a press conference in Vienna that his agency was struggling to get timely information from Japan about its failing reactors, which has resulted in agency misstatements.

“I am asking the Japanese counterparts to further strengthen, to facilitate, communication,” said the agency’s chief, Yukiya Amano. A diplomat in Vienna familiar with the agency’s operations echoed those sentiments.

“It’s so frustrating to try to get good information” from the Japanese, the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to antagonize officials there.

The less-than-straight talk is rooted in a conflict-averse culture that avoids direct references to unpleasantness. Until recently, it was standard practice not to tell cancer patients about their diagnoses, ostensibly to protect them from distress. Even Emperor Hirohito, when he spoke to his subjects for the first time to mark Japan’s surrender in World War II, spoke circumspectly, asking Japanese to “endure the unendurable.”

There are also political considerations. In the only nation that has endured an atomic bomb attack, acute sensitivity about radiation sickness may be motivating public officials to try to contain panic — and to perform political damage control. Left-leaning news outlets have long been skeptical of nuclear power and of its backers, and the mutual mistrust led power companies and their regulators to tightly control the flow of information about nuclear operations so as not to inflame a spectrum of opponents that includes pacifists and environmentalists.

“It’s a Catch-22,” said Kuni Yogo, a former nuclear power planner at Japan’s Science and Technology Agency. He said that the government and Tepco “try to disclose only what they think is necessary, while the media, which has an antinuclear tendency, acts hysterically, which leads the government and Tepco to not offer more information.”

The Japanese government has also decided to limit the flow of information to the public about the reactors, having concluded that too many briefings will distract Tepco from its task of bringing the reactors under control, said a senior nuclear industry executive.

At a Tepco briefing on Wednesday, tempers ran high among reporters. Their questions focused on the plumes of steam seen rising from Daiichi’s Reactor No. 3, but there were few answers.

“We cannot confirm,” an official insisted. “It is impossible for me to say anything at this point,” another said. And as always, there was an effusive apology: “We are so sorry for causing you bother.”

“There are too many things you cannot confirm!” one frustrated reporter replied in an unusually strong tone that perhaps signaled that ritual apologies had no place in a nuclear crisis.

Yukio Edano, the outspoken chief cabinet secretary, has been one voice of relative clarity. But at times, he has seemed unable to make sense of the fast-evolving crisis. And even he has spoken too ambiguously for foreign news media.

On Wednesday, Mr. Edano told a press conference that radiation levels had spiked because of smoke billowing from Reactor No. 3 at Fukushima Daiichi, and that all staff members would be temporarily moved “to a safe place.” When he did not elaborate, some foreign reporters, perhaps further confused by the English translator from NHK, the national broadcaster, interpreted his remarks as meaning that Tepco staff members were leaving the plant.

From CNN to The Associated Press to Al Jazeera, panicky headlines shouted that the Fukushima Daiichi plant was being abandoned, in stark contrast to the calm maintained by Japanese media, perhaps better at navigating the nuances of the vague comments.

After checking with nuclear regulators and Tepco itself, it emerged that the plant’s staff members had briefly taken cover indoors within the plant, but had in no way abandoned it.

The close links between politicians and business executives have further complicated the management of the nuclear crisis.

Powerful bureaucrats retire to better-paid jobs in the very industries they once oversaw, in a practice known as “amakudari.” Perhaps no sector had closer relations with regulators than the country’s utilities; regulators and the regulated worked hand in hand to promote nuclear energy, since both were keen to reduce Japan’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

Postwar Japan flourished under a system in which political leaders left much of the nation’s foreign policy to the United States and domestic affairs to powerful bureaucrats. Prominent companies operated with an extensive reach into personal lives; their executives were admired for their roles as corporate citizens.

But over the past decade or so, the bureaucrats’ authority has been greatly reduced, and corporations have lost both power and swagger as the economy has floundered.

Yet no strong political class has emerged to take their place. Four prime ministers have come and gone in less than four years; most political analysts had already written off the fifth, Mr. Kan, even before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Two years ago, Mr. Kan’s Japan Democratic Party swept out the virtual one-party rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had dominated Japanese political life for 50 years.

But the lack of continuity and inexperience in governing have hobbled Mr. Kan’s party. The only long-serving group within the government is the bureaucracy, which has been, at a minimum, mistrustful of the party.

“It’s not in their DNA to work with anybody other than the Liberal Democrats,” said Noriko Hama, an economist at Doshisha University.

Neither Mr. Kan nor the bureaucracy has had a hand in planning the rolling residential blackouts in the Tokyo region; the responsibility has been left to Tepco. Unlike the orderly blackouts in the 1970s, the current ones have been carried out with little warning, heightening the public anxiety and highlighting the lack of a trusted leader capable of sharing information about the scope of the disaster and the potential threats to people’s well-being.

“The mistrust of the government and Tepco was already there before the crisis, and people are even angrier now because of the inaccurate information they’re getting,” said Susumu Hirakawa, a professor of psychology at Taisho University.

But the absence of a galvanizing voice is also the result of the longstanding rivalries between bureaucrats and politicians, and between various ministries that tend to operate as fiefdoms.

“There’s a clear lack of command authority in the current government in Tokyo,” said Ronald Morse, who has worked in the Defense, Energy and State Departments in the United States and in two government ministries in Japan. “The magnitude of it becomes obvious at a time like this.”

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