The Political Consequences Of Japan’s Triple Disasters
Will one of the worst natural disasters to hit Japan in centuries change the relationship between the Japanese government and the people?
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.