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Public wary of official optimism

by Philip Brasor

Ambition can sometimes be measured by the amount of deference paid to the established order, so the recently published book “Genpatsu Kiki to Todai Waho,” which irreverently analyzes the “parlance of the University of Tokyo” as it was utilized during the early days of the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, delivers even more of a surprise when the reader realizes it was written by a younger professor at that august institution.

Ayumu Yasutomi was born in 1963 and specializes in a field he calls “social ecology,” but the purpose of his book is to explain to laypersons the special mode of speech developed by professors at the University of Tokyo and which he says has contaminated discourse in the media.

As indicated in the title, he uses as his main illustrative model the explanations that were offered by nuclear energy experts, many of whom teach at Todai, on television in the months following the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant a year ago. He singles out one professor, Naoto Sekimura, who appeared often on NHK, where he couched his lectures in “optimistic language” and avoided committing to any suppositions of what might actually be happening at any given moment. Sekimura did this by using special terms, in a condescending fashion, that viewers and even reporters couldn’t understand.

The trick, according to Yasutomi, is for the user of this method to ignore points in the discussion that “are not favorable” to his position — in this case, a defense of nuclear power — and respond only to those that are. Moreover, the speaker presents himself as an “uninvolved observer,” thus implying that anyone who disagrees with the observation is working only from opinion.

Yasutomi says he hears these rhetorical devices all the time at the University of Tokyo, and has since noticed their use by people in positions of authority, such as politicians and other media pundits. He pointed to the press briefings that then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano gave at the height of the crisis. Instead of saying that there had been an explosion at the plant, Edano would say there had been an “explosion-like (bakuhatsu-teki) event.”

Whether intentional or not, such circumlocutions not only degrade the language, they cheapen dialogue, since the speaker indicates a presumption that the listener is incapable of handling the truth. But as Yasutomi recently told Tokyo Shimbun, the people these speakers are mainly deceiving are themselves. “They could not confront the reality that an explosion actually occurred,” he said, and so adjusted their diction so as to avoid considering the possibility that it had. Yasutomi said the same thing happened during World War II, when the country’s leaders kept supporting their actions with the assertion that Japan was a “divine nation,” without acknowledging to themselves and the public that such a policy was being used to justify the unnecessary deaths of millions of people. The illogical reigned. “These professors won’t call a dangerous thing dangerous,” Yasutomi said. “And that leads to a situation where accidents happen.”

It also creates an atmosphere of skepticism. During the last few weeks a number of reports have been released analyzing the response to the nuclear accident and other incidents associated with the March 11 disaster, and almost all have found that the authorities at both the governmental and private levels purposely misled the public, ostensibly to prevent panic but, as Yasutomi’s book argues, also to cover their respective backsides.

What’s sobering about these reports is that no one is really shocked by their findings. Regardless of how convoluted todai waho can be, people are not as naive as these professors think they are. (And, I suspect, neither are media people, though they are obligated to be polite to their guests.) The doubt that manifested last summer as a more formidable public resistance to nuclear power was less a reaction to the perceived dangers of the technology than a direct response to the obfuscatory methodology of “experts” and the powers they served. As Yasutomi said, “People learned to mistrust those in authority, so much so that even if they told the truth, people couldn’t tell. They just automatically thought they were lying.”

This week, the media is commemorating the first anniversary of the disaster by replaying footage of swaying high-rises and giant waves of black water that are no less terrifying than they were a year ago. The lives lost and the property damaged have been readily chronicled over the past 12 months, usually in moving ways that spur people to facilitate recovery and make them realize that these are things that could happen to anyone because they are acts of nature. There is nothing you can do about it except be better prepared for the next one.

The public’s lack of confidence in the ability of their leaders to help them in the event of another catastrophe could be considered the fourth disaster of March 11; a latent disaster, for sure, but one whose negative effects may be as long-lasting as the radiation that some claim is tolerable and others say is deadly. In line with Yasutomi’s thesis, it matters little who is “right,” because the cynicism of those who assume they know what’s best has rendered everything they say suspicious.

A recent Asahi Shimbun survey found that 94 percent of a cross section of Fukushima Prefecture residents didn’t believe Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda when he announced in December that the nuclear crisis was contained. Eighty percent said they didn’t think the government’s reconstruction activities were “making things better.” Given what they have gone through, it’s natural for people to be wary of optimistic projections. The media’s blanket coverage of their plight over the course of a full year has made their position more immediate to the rest of us, who were lucky this time.