Key crisis contact heads for London

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

As deputy Cabinet secretary for public affairs, Noriyuki Shikata instantly realized his workload would skyrocket when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, but admits being taken aback by the flood of requests that started pouring in from overseas media.

As the only member of the prime minister’s office able to give quick on-the-spot interviews in fluent English, Shikata became the go-to official for foreign news bureaus seeking information on the March 2011 disasters, enabling reporters to avoid the maze of bureaucracy.

“One crucial lesson our society needs to learn (from the Tohoku calamity) is that its leading members need to develop better global communication skills,” Shikata told The Japan Times recently before his September dispatch to London, where he will be a political minister at the Japanese Embassy.

In general, access to information in Japan is the privilege of domestic media companies that are allowed into its notorious “kisha” club system. The government usually demands that overseas media outlets fax in their interview requests in Japanese, even when a story as major as the nuclear crisis is breaking.

This is not surprising in the world’s third-largest economy, whose leaders often trumpet the need to look outward and engage, but remain hidebound and insular in practice.

“There has been a black hole at the prime minister’s office” in terms of information disclosure, said Steven Herman, a correspondent who has covered Japan since 1994 and is head of Voice of America’s bureau in Seoul.

“What international media want is to ring someone up and get a quick response and comments. Shikata understood that and was really the first at the prime minister’s office to become available.”

Shikata was introduced to public relations in a high school communications class in Diamond, Missouri, where he was an exchange student in the early 1980s via the American Field Service. After becoming the deputy Cabinet secretary for public affairs in July 2010, Shikata was asked by national policy minister Motohisa Furukawa, the deputy chief Cabinet secretary at the time, to enhance and expand international media relations at the prime minister’s office.

Furukawa, a regular participant at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, sensed Japan’s message was not being heard on the world stage at a time when emerging economies were growing more vocal.

So he asked Shikata, a Foreign Ministry official who graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School, to create a global communications section under the prime minister’s office to reach out to foreign media.

Shikata had to build the office from scratch and initially had only one assistant. He started recruiting more staff from both the public and private sectors, but the office had only six employees, including himself, when the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami led to the nuclear disaster.

“I was lucky to at least have the basic infrastructure necessary for global communications” at my disposal, said Shikata. “If it was not for this, my job would have been even harder.”

Shikata’s response in the immediate aftermath of the calamity in the northeast was swift. By the end of March 2011 he had given more than 60 interviews in English to global media groups, including AP, the Los Angeles Times and Britain’s Financial Times, and was also interviewed live on CNN and ABC. He also introduced a simultaneous Japanese-English interpretation service at the chief Cabinet secretary’s news conferences.

Since his resources were severely limited, Shikata had to take unusual steps for a bureaucrat, such as using social networking services like Twitter and Facebook.

He immediately started tweeting information and blogging in English during news conferences held by the prime minister and chief Cabinet secretary following the events of March 11.

Under Shikata’s leadership, government websites across the board have improved considerably and include more content in English. Some sites that previously took weeks or even months to upload information in English for a global audience are now doing so far quicker.

But information is still difficult to find on some state websites, whether in English or Japanese.

“Ministries that were tested (by the disasters) were the ones that caught up fast” in the drive to go global, said Chico Harlan, who covers Japan for The Washington Post as its East Asia bureau chief. “But much more could be done.”

Shikata admitted that his office faced a number of challenges in the early stages of the nuclear disaster, especially when trying to explain complicated scientific data about radioactive materials discharged from the Fukushima No. 1 plant and the basics of nuclear engineering.

He believes English-speaking experts should be appointed as public information officers to mend the government’s reputation, which has been battered both within Japan and beyond by the lack of good, reliable and prompt information disclosure on the nuclear disaster.

A record number of foreigners fled Japan amid the Fukushima crisis, and many countries imposed bans on Japanese produce, fearing it was contaminated with radioactive fallout.

Experts agree that the government’s communications setup was completely unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude and say it is vital that new channels of communication are established to disseminate information in English on a regular basis and in a timely manner.

They point out that Japan needs to address the global community in English on numerous issues, including its territorial disputes with China, South Korea, and Russia and possible participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal.

“With the shutdown of numerous Tokyo (media) bureaus, people are covering Japan remotely from London or Washington. They need to pick up the phone and talk to somebody,” said Herman of Voice of America.

“If we can’t get responses from government officials, then we are forced to rely on analysts who might have different points of view from the government.”

With Shikata about to leave the prime minister’s office, some experts fear the flow of information might dry up.

“Effective communication requires more than the English language that Japan’s elite learn at schools for college entrance examinations,” said Takeshi Suzuki, a professor at Meiji University’s School of Information and Communication. “Yet, Japan might not be ready to tap a merit-based personnel system at the government level.”

Shikata said the government is busy training suitable personnel, but he is aware of the challenges.

“We have too few employees trained in our education system or our management system,” he said. “However, there is no choice but to engage in communication, especially in English, as the international community is becoming increasingly integrated.”