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Communication challenge

by Sadaaki Numata

The catastrophe of the earthquake, the tsunami and the crippled nuclear power plant on March 11 posed an unprecedented challenge of crisis communication with the world. Those in charge were faced with the difficult choice between calming the public by presenting an optimistic scenario that could lead to complacency, and preparing for emergencies by painting a worst-case scenario that could cause panic. They seemed to take the middle course.

The world was watching Japan with acute concern. The media-relations people in the Cabinet Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, etc., were working very hard for information transparency through their almost daily foreign press briefings. To dispel the images of an “unsafe Japan” created by some members of the foreign media, unambiguous, forceful messages rather than detailed factual accounts were called for, but they were not easy to come by in a fast-moving situation.

The demonstrated resilience of the victims of the earthquake and the tsunami presented a positive image abroad with their calmness, orderliness and perseverance. Sir Howard Stringer, chairman of Sony Corporation, said on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria’s GPS (Global Public Square) show on March 20, “Japan will rebuild with a ferocity the world will not have seen.”

A cloud was cast, however, on Japan’s image by allegations of secrecy and lack of transparency on the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The low point was when French economist Jacques Attali declared that the international community must intervene in Japan to prevent radiation from poisoning the planet (Christian Science Monitor, March 30. Takeshi Hikihara, consul general of Japan in Boston, openly rebutted the French intellectual’s false and misleading statements (Christian Science Monitor, April 9).

We now have a clearer picture with respect to both the severity of the nuclear disaster and the prospects for its resolution. Japan upgraded its INES rating of the Fukushima nuclear crisis to Level 7 on April 13, on the basis of its estimate of the total amount of radioactive substances released. The fact remains that leaks at Fukushima are still one-tenth of those released by Chernobyl, and, in Tokyo, radiation has never reached a level that would affect human health.

The Tepco road map for resolving the crisis, announced on April 17, represents the combined wisdom of Japanese, American and French experts. It lays down important benchmarks for ensuring a steady decline in radiation dose over the next three months, then bringing the plant into a state of cold shutdown in six to nine months.

We have moved into the stage of drawing up the master plan for not just simple reconstruction but creative reconstruction and taking the necessary budgetary and legislative steps. This will be our major internal preoccupation. However, we should not forget that the world will continue to watch us, keen to see whether Japan will react to the disaster by re-energizing itself for reconstruction and resuming its role in the world.

For example, Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who accompanied U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Japan on April 17, said in a press interview that U.S. help to Japan to keep its position in the global supply chain would serve to maintain Japan’s geopolitical position in the region.

Resuming Japan’s role in the world is not just about the global supply chain, the Japan-U.S. alliance, or the set of issues such as nuclear safety, energy security and global warming. According to the United Nations, Japan is expected to become the No. 1 recipient of foreign aid in 2011, with its receipt of emergency donations and supplies reaching ¥86.4 billion. Surely, we should repay this outpouring of support and solidarity from 143 countries by continuing to discharge our responsibility as a major foreign aid donor.

The task before us is not only to achieve creative reconstruction but also to show that Japan is determined to act as a global player. The lessons learned in terms of global communication in crisis should serve us well. What we need above all is a visionary political leadership that can rise above myopic partisan squabbling and send clear, forceful messages to the world.

Saadaki Numata is a former Foreign Ministry spokesman and ambassador to Pakistan and Canada. He is currently vice chairman of The English-Speaking Union of Japan. This article originally appeared on the website of The English-Speaking Union of Japan on April 25.