• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

The Political Consequences Of Japan’s Triple Disasters

There’s an interesting news analysis in today’s New York Times discussing the possible implications of the three-tiered crisis that has gripped Japan since the earthquake struck on Friday afternoon:

Never has postwar Japan needed strong, assertive leadership more — and never has its weak, rudderless system of governing been so clearly exposed or mattered so much.

Japan faces its biggest challenge since World War II, after an earthquake, a tsunami and a deepening nuclear crisis struck in rapid, bewildering succession. The disasters require nationwide mobilization for search, rescue and resettlement, and a scramble for jury-rigged solutions in uncharted nuclear territory, with crises at multiple reactors posing a daunting array of problems. Japan’s leaders need to draw on skills they are woefully untrained for: improvisation; clear, timely and reassuring public communication; and cooperation with multiple powerful bureaucracies.

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

But over the past decade or so, the bureaucrats’ authority has been eviscerated, 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, Naoto Kan, even before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

One reflection of that lack of leadership can be seen in the manner in which the government has dealt with the nuclear crisis:

Left-leaning news media outlets were long skeptical of nuclear power and 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 broad spectrum of opponents that include pacifists and environmentalists.

“It’s a Catch-22,” said Kuni Yogo, a nuclear power planner at Japan’s Science and Technology Agency.

He said that the government and Tokyo Electric Power, or Tepco, the operator of the troubled nuclear plant, “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 wariness between the public and the nuclear industry and its regulators has proven to be costly during this nuclear emergency. As the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant unfolded, officials from Tepco and the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency have at times provided inconsistent figures or played down the risks to the reactors and the general public. No person from either side has become the face of the rescue effort.

Politicians, relying almost completely on Tepco for information, have been left to report what they are told, often in unconvincing fashion.

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’s 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.

It was, perhaps, because of this that Emperor Akhito addressed the nation last night in a rare live television address:

Emperor Akihito spoke to his nation Wednesday — a somber televised message that demonstrated how deeply Japan has been shattered by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Akihito gives annual New Year’s greetings. He gives speeches at various ceremonial events. He has visited with survivors of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. But Wednesday was the first time Akihito gave a televised national address at a time of crisis, and for some it recalled a speech by the last emperor, his father, at defining moment in Japan’s history.

Wearing a dark suit, Akihito on Wednesday spoke for about six minutes from a reception room at the Imperial Palace.

“We don’t know the number of victims, but I pray that every single person can be saved,” he said. “I am deeply concerned about the nuclear situation and hope it will be resolved.

I don’t pretend to know anything about Japanese politics, and there’s been very little coverage in the American media about what this crisis could mean for Japanese politics and society. However, this disaster strikes me as having the potential to be one of those transformational events that changes the nature of the relationship between the people and their government.

 

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. legion says:

    Imagine that – turning something as vital as nuclear power generation & management completely over to a private corporation, with no oversight or input from the gov’t, turns into a colossal disaster when the company doesn’t feel beholden to the gov’t _or_ the citizens at large. Who could have predicted?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Jay Tea says:

    Japan’s plants withstood, largely, a quake over ten times as strong as required by the specs, I believe. That they STILL haven’t failed catastrophically is a testament to how well they were built.

    On the other hand, Chernobyl was entirely a government-run project…

    J.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. daveinboca says:

    What’s hilarious is the New York Times hitting on Japan for do-nothing incompetent go-slow leadership. The NYT is completely quiet about the disastrous fisca and budgetary tsunami hitting the US economy—-bigger in February than in all of 2007.

    If the Democrats didn’t have a double standard, they’d have no standards at all.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. wr says:

    Shorter daveinboca — Liberals are stupid because they believe there’s a difference between a literal tsunami and a metaphorical one invented by Republican politicians who want to wipe out all government services to the middle class.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. Steve Verdon says:

    Imagine that – turning something as vital as nuclear power generation & management completely over to a private corporation, with no oversight or input from the gov’t, turns into a colossal disaster when the company doesn’t feel beholden to the gov’t _or_ the citizens at large. Who could have predicted?

    Don’t be stupid. Those reactors are 40 years old and well predate the period where the government became so weakened. And it isn’t like this is a run-of-the-mill type of event. It took an extraordinary double disaster to lead to the third one. An extremely unlikely event. To say this is a failing of just a private firm is…stupid beyond belief.

    And keep in mind when the earthquake happened the built in safe guards went into effect. What messed everything up was the tsunami which damaged critical parts of the plant for maintaining the reactors.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. anjin-san says:

    > To say this is a failing of just a private firm is…stupid beyond belief.

    Well, the safety problems related to these “budget” plants were known back in the early 70s. (granted, this is after the plants in question were built). If the Tokyo Power folks had chosen a more robust (and more expensive) design initially, they would probably be getting a huge dividend on that investment today.

    These are extraordinary circumstances, to say the least. But it is a blunt reminder of why it is pretty much ALWAYS a good idea to over-engineer a project that involves critical risks. Even though it costs more.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. john personna says:

    How many 40 year old reactors do we have?

    Do you recommend we keep them and hope for the best?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. Robert C. says:

    “Don’t be stupid. Those reactors are 40 years old and well predate the period where the government became so weakened.” says Steve.

    Is it possible the private sector that claimed, for a decade, that 40 years old is young for a nuclear reactor?

    “It took an extraordinary double disaster to lead to the third one. An extremely unlikely event.” says Steve.

    Incorrect. The nuclear power plants failed from ONE event…the tsunami is linked to the earthquake like oder to a fart. Although the earthquake was huge and has caused significant human loss and suffering and will have huge financial costs, it is really not “extraordinary”, and a following tsunami not unexpected.

    Robert C.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. matt says:

    I wasn’t worried when I first heard about the plant being hit with an earthquake. I had assumed they would of put their generators on high ground and had a substantial seawall…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Jay Tea says:

    Robert, please reconcile how the strongest quake to hit Japan in recorded history — and the fifth strongest quake ever recorded — is not “extraordinary.”

    I’ve read that the plants were built to withstand an 8.0 quake. This quake was about ten times stronger.

    And yes, the plants were 40 years old. These plants represent a huge capital investment, so of course they’re going to be kept running for a very long time. That’s the nature of nuclear power plants.

    The United States Navy has eight reactors that have been in operation for about 50 years, and they aren’t built on bedrock. They’re cruising around the world aboard the USS Enterprise, subjected to constant vibrations from moving at speeds up to about 35 miles an hour and being tossed around by waves and storms. And they’re still working fine.

    On board the Nimitz, her two reactors are almost 40 years old.

    The reactors in question are failing, and a major disaster could still happen. But these reactors withstood stresses well in excess of specs, and did not — yet — fail catastrophically.

    There are lessons to be learned from this. But the worst possible lesson to learn is “no nukes.” Especially with the Obama administration’s anti-energy policy — no new oil, no new coal, no new dams (messes with fish), no new windmills (kills birds), no new natural gas (too dangerous to transport), etc. etc.

    J.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. john personna says:

    Frankly Jay, you make me want to send a few bucks to the anti-nukes. And I am not even anti-nuke.

    It’s just that “let’s ignore all new evidence” is wearing thin.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. john personna says:

    (Why weren’t the pro-nukes, with their vast knowledge of the dangers of older nuclear plants, calling for their immediate replacement? Why instead did they defend those same plants, against “the environmentalists?” Who looks good at the end of that?)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. Wayne says:

    Just imagine what would happen if almost “all” of the U.S. was hit with such a disaster. Do you think we would handle it as well? Do you think it would change people’s political philosophies?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. Wayne says:

    Just curious, does anyone know how far from the epicenter that Japan citizens are living basically the same life? Please leave out the emotional impact part. I am talking going to work, buying food, travel, etc.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. john personna says:

    ‘Do you think we would handle it as well?”

    No.

    “Do you think it would change people’s political philosophies?”

    Yes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. anjin-san says:

    > these reactors withstood stresses well in excess of specs, and did not — yet — fail catastrophically.

    No doubt parents in Japan who are giving their kids iodine pills are comforting them with these very words…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. Jay Tea says:

    Over at Instapundit, someone speculated what would have happened if the tsunami had hit a nice, green, clean solar farm.

    Reader Andrew Medina says we’re lucky to face nuclear-plant problems, because if the tsunami had hit a solar farm instead, “10,000’s of Lbs of lead and cadmium telluride would have been swept into the Sea of Japan poisoning just about everything.”

    As cold as it sounds, everything has a price, everything involves tradeoffs. The price of replacing a nuclear reactor is another source of that much energy — and they all involve dangers.

    J.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. Wayne says:

    Come on Jay. Liberals want everything for free except for “their” labor. In their fantasy world nothing has a price and there are no tradeoffs. Everything is perfect. Sorry, had to get my liberal bashing in.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. Wayne says:

    JP
    I am not all that sure on the last part. The ones setting around waiting for government help will continue to do so. The ones who don’t will be busy cleaning up, helping out and appreciating any help that does arrive.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. Still kind of stunned by people trying to score debating points off this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. anjin-san says:

    Charles… its called trying to learn from your mistakes. Perhaps we can learn from this tragedy to make the world a little safer. I could say I am a little stunned that people are using this as an excuse to kick the can down the road and stifle criticism of the nuclear industry, but I’m not. The exact same thing happens during the deepwater horizon disaster … “now is not.the time”. Wrong. Now is absolutly the time to talk about the risks associated with nuclear energy and how they are exacerbated by greed and incompetence on the part of the bcompanies who run them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. john personna says:

    “Still kind of stunned by people trying to score debating points off this.”

    I’m stunned by people who say “ignore the accident in front of you.”

    The way I read it, pro-nukes can’t take the accident for what it is and have to make the weirdest, illogical, arguments in response. Let me give you another example. On the radio just now a lady said that Chernobyl was a serious health risk to those “in close proximity.” OK, fine so far. She then went on to list three countries where people were that close. Doesn’t that deserve a “huh?” I’d say that when “close proximity” spans nations, you have a problem.

    And (to reiterate) if you want to tell me that only 40 year old reactors are a problem, tell me last week. That would build some credibility. Right now, it looks like an excuse.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. An Interested Party says:

    Still kind of stunned by people trying to score debating points off this.

    Indeed, just look at Wayne using this opportunity to bash liberals…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. tom p says:

    Political consequences be damned, my niece won’t leave. She feels God has called her to be there at this point in time… If this were a political discussion I would argue with her, but this is a religous decission and I could not be more proud of her.

    I love her more with each and every passing day. I hope that all of you find some one to be so proud of as well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. anjin-san says:

    (03-17) 04:12 PDT TOKYO, Japan (AP) –

    Behind Japan’s escalating nuclear crisis sits a scandal-ridden energy industry in a comfy relationship with government regulators often willing to overlook safety lapses.

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2011/03/17/international/i003856D12.DTL

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. anjin-san says:

    .Over at Instapundit, someone speculated what would have happened if the tsunami had hit a nice, green, clean solar farm.

    Reader Andrew Medina says we’re lucky to face nuclear-plant problems, because if the tsunami had hit a solar farm instead, “10,000’s of Lbs of lead and cadmium telluride would have been swept into the Sea of Japan poisoning just about everything.”

    And how many solar farms are located on prime costal real estate?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0