UK’s The Telegraph newspaper has an interesting article, “Has Japan’s ruling elite learned the lessons from the series of past mistakes?”, regarding the Japanese government’s handling of the quake.  The author, a former BBC correspondent in Japan, concludes no.

But beside that spectacle of Japan’s extreme vulnerability to natural disasters, another remarkable feature of Japanese society has been on display too: the extraordinary degree of social order as well as trust in official authority shown by the population in the face of terrible loss of life and severe disruption for millions.

BBC correspondent Roland Buerk noted one telling detail that even in this crisis many ordinary Japanese were still stopping obediently at the red lights of pedestrian crossings, even though no traffic was moving on the roads.That indeed reveals something about the default settings of ordinary life in Japan. It is just one of the many small conventions which are universally observed in Japanese society, where obedience to authority in small things often goes unquestioned.

Seeing stranded commuters still following this little social rule shows how strong the social pressure are to adhere to conventions and rules of all kinds. That mind-set helps to make Tokyo one of the world’s safest capitals in normal times. But it is also a sign of conformism and passivity an ingrained pattern of behaviour which may now stand in the way of what Japan urgently needs: the spirit of innovation, and the critical mind-set among the media and the public that can hold the powerful to account.


But the grave dangers are not yet over, and past experience of Japanese government ability to deal properly and openly with high-risk events – especially nuclear accidents – is not encouraging.

On Friday, the first reports about the Fukushima nuclear power complex 100 miles northeast of Tokyo said only that emergency generators had led to a problem with the cooling system of one reactor. A nuclear safety official gave assurances that measures to release some steam from the reactor posed no danger to health.

A day later officials acknowledged that the cooling systems of five reactors at two sites had failed, and then that a meltdown of one or other of the reactors was a possibility.

In each of these cases – as with the Kobe earthquake – investigators and critics later suggested that overly rigid management systems and a lack of any real culture of accountability were behind the costly and highly embarrassing failures. Cover-ups have been much too common in the past, it is said, thanks to a pervasive “culture of shame” in Japan, which drives responsible officials, including elected politicians, to deny responsibility for failures until such time as they have lost face to the point where they realise that they must step down.

I could observe similar failings in Japan’s disaster responses when in 1985 I reported from Tokyo for the BBC on what was the world’s worst ever accident involving a single aircraft. A Japan Airlines passenger plane broke up in flight and crashed in a heavily wooded area near Mt Fuji, killing 520 people. The rescue effort was delayed overnight, and it was said that the lives of several survivors may even have been lost, because Japanese officials refused offers of help from the US air force of planes which had specialised equipment for operating after dark; rescue teams from two adjoining Japanese local government areas were also found to have failed to communicate with each other.

Then too, critics inside Japan and abroad lamented then that the country’s much-vaunted system of consensus too often conceals a fatal flaw, a serious inability to take decisive action when needed, both at times of emergency and when the government’s own structures need to be shaken up.

Has Japan’s ruling elite learned the lessons from the series of past mistakes? There are few signs of it yet.

Over half a century ago, after Japan’s defeat in war, the nation’s conservative politicians made a compact with the nation’s most powerful forces and with the people as a whole: the government would ally itself with the world’s top superpower, the United States, and pursue policies to ensure prosperity and peace. Japan would be a model country, with a contented and wealthy population.

That mission was accomplished after a fashion at the end of the last century. The endemic corruption scandals and accompanying degradation of Japan’s own living environment through the years of breakneck growth seemed a price worth paying. Now, though, Japan badly needs a culture of participation and accountability, not a culture of shame and cover-ups.

The horrifying scenes of destruction in many parts of the Tohoku region may make this a challenging time to undertake such a sweeping cultural shift. But it has never been more necessary than now.

Some tough decisions will have to be made in the rebuilding process.  Many of the villages devastated by the tsunami have been abandoned by the young (for Tokyo) and only the elderly were left.  An innovative rebuilding could help attract the young back to these villages (including immigrants, if Japan were change its policy and welcome immigrants)  instead of simply rebuilding the past with those unsightly seawalls that proved to be of no help in preventing the damage. (See this NY Times article about those sea walls)

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