Do dire predictions for Japan factor in a rush for the exits?

After 3/11 'Keep calm, everything will be OK' mantra rings hollow

by Colin P.A. Jones

Within two hours of the massive earthquake that jolted Japan at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, the Japanese government received notice that an “Article 15 event” had occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. “Article 15” refers to the Act on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness, and the “event” was the complete failure of the plant’s emergency cooling system. Under the Act, such an event is deemed indicative of a “nuclear emergency situation” requiring the issuance of a “Declaration of an Emergency Situation.” Such a declaration was put out at 7:03 p.m. Its sparse text bears repeating in full (my translation):

“At 16:36 on March 11, 2011, an incident of the type specified in Article 15 (1) (ii) of the Act on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness occurred at the Tepco Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. It being recognized that urgent measures are required to prevent the spread of a nuclear disaster, a declaration of a nuclear emergency situation is hereby issued under the provisions of the aforementioned Article.”

Although drafted in great haste, the declaration is nonetheless interesting for several reasons. First, it does not identify what sort of nuclear emergency it was declaring, even though the government knew and the law lays out a variety of clearly defined triggering events. Such information might have been relevant to a wide variety of people; after all, the stated purpose of the Act is to protect “the lives, bodies and properties of citizens from a nuclear disaster.”

Even more interesting is that the declaration included a footnote longer than the declaration itself (my translation and emphasis):

“Currently no effects of radioactive substances have been confirmed outside the plant. Accordingly, people living or present in affected areas do not need to take any special action. Please do not evacuate in a rush, but wait indoors and obtain updated information from administrative emergency broadcasts, the radio or television. To repeat: This is not a situation where radiation is leaking outside the plant. Please remain calm and await further information.”

Given what is now known about problems with the government’s collection and dissemination of radiation information after the disaster began, the factual basis for making such a calming statement so early in the crisis seems questionable. The subtle conversion of radiation contamination being “not confirmed” into “not existing” through repetition seems Orwellian, but can perhaps be attributed to hurried drafting.

What is most interesting about the declaration as a whole, however, is that the footnote technically renders the whole situation a nonemergency. Article 2 of the Nuclear Emergency Preparedness Act defines “nuclear emergency situation” as “a situation in which radioactive materials or radiation at an abnormal level has been released outside the nuclear site” (Japanese government translation) — precisely what the footnote went out of its way to reassure people had not happened. The primary purpose of the declaration thus appears to be to tell people not to panic, rather than to provide information about an unprecedented, potentially catastrophic nuclear crisis that was still unfolding (and still is, apparently, since the declaration technically remains in effect).

“Stay calm and await further instructions” may well be sound advice in many emergencies. But not always: As we know from the horrific tsunami of the same day, running for the hills can mean the difference between life or death. There was a very real risk of the Fukushima disaster spiraling beyond human control and triggering a chain of meltdowns as workers abandoned other plants, a risk that was known at the time. In his account of those critical days, former Nuclear Safety Commission Chairman Haruki Madarame describes his feelings on the morning of March 12, riding on a helicopter back from Fukushima after accompanying then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan on his much-maligned visit to the stricken plant. Looking down on the Tokyo scenery, Madarame wondered if he would ever see it again.

The Japanese have centuries of experience with tsunami. The government can prepare contingency plans, and people and institutions know how to act if there is a danger of one occurring, even if this involves a sort of “controlled panic.” However, a tsunami-triggered chain of meltdowns rendering much of Japan uninhabitable was never part of the decades-long sales pitch the government had been making for nuclear power. Any sort of panic — controlled or otherwise — was probably impermissible. Yet, if the nightmare scenario envisioned by an expert like Madarame had actually unfolded, would “stay indoors, wait for more information” have been the best advice?

Second-guessing the response to an unprecedented crisis is unfair. Nonetheless, the 3/11 declaration still serves to illustrate the government’s priorities: preserving order over providing information.

Order has become such a common feature of modern societies that many of us take it for granted, like clean water and dial tones. Although wa — harmony — is said to be a core value of Japanese culture, one reason for this still holding true today may be that the country has experienced so much discord in its recent history. Since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan has experienced civil wars, a coup, full-blown international wars, infrastructure devastation, population displacement, food shortages, two atomic bombings, military occupation by foreign powers, widespread labor unrest — even a chemical weapons attack by a domestic terrorist group. It is actually a surprisingly long list.

Small wonder, then, that social order is a high priority for Japanese law and governance, as is reflected in the tendency to discuss policing in terms of chian iji — preserving the peace — rather than “law enforcement” or “crime prevention.” In fact, Japanese authorities sometimes seem more interested in suppressing arguably lawful behavior that is socially disruptive (antinuclear rallies or antiwhaling activities, for example) than tackling criminal behavior that is not. One of the reasons the yakuza have been able to survive so openly for so long is probably because they impose a rigidly enforced order on their underworld domains. A more recent indication of the primacy of wa is the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s desire to add “public order” to the Constitution as a value that can trump free speech and other fundamental rights.

Public order is a perfectly legitimate goal for any society, particularly a democratic one. However, in Japan a great deal of order may be less the product of formal democratic structures than of the bureaucrats and interest groups who derive their legitimacy and power from preserving this order, or at least the appearance of it.

Japan’s nuclear regulatory-industrial complex is a prime example: It spent decades co-opting national politicians, local governments, scholars and artists — exercising so much power that not only was it able to quell most antinuclear dissent before 3/11, but the mainstream media has remained circumspect about covering antinuclear demonstrations even afterwards.

Many people in Japan probably appreciate the importance of order as a governance priority, as well as the order itself — it is one of the things that make the country such an agreeable place to live. At the same time, most of these same people also recognize that preserving order will take precedence over providing information, and that openly challenging those who derive their legitimacy from appearing to maintain order is often futile: Quietly making other plans is often the better approach. While much was made of the foreign “flyjin” exodus from Japan after 3/11, less attention has been given to the many Japanese people who have quietly moved from Tokyo to points west or even abroad.

Fukushima is already being relegated to the background, no longer a “disaster” but part of the new order, “safely” under government control. In fact, the same imperative illustrated in the disaster declaration seems to be being followed in slow motion with respect to the associated health risks, with Japanese health authorities openly contesting a World Health Organization report on heightened cancer risks in the vicinity of Fukushima: Stay where you are; everything will be all right . . . probably.

And what about those other potential disasters that are still unfolding, only even more slowly? Japan’s shrinking and aging population, burgeoning debt and economy well into its third “lost decade” are all slow-motion crises with potentially catastrophic implications. Here the government response has been depressingly familiar: Don’t panic, stay indoors and let the Abenomics money machine do its thing. Oh, and watch out for that wet concrete.

While the Japanese people may value order, they are not stupid either. With the scandals about radiation information fresh in their memories, how do they see their government’s pronouncements about the country’s ballooning debt, pension shortfalls, deteriorating employment stability and declining tax base? Surely they must know that no amount of concrete or public spending will magically turn an aging population into a younger one or convert sick Japanese companies into healthy ones that can be both globally competitive yet keep staggering zombielike down the same path.

Furthermore, nobody seems to be asking whether the various projections about the many depressing fiscal and demographic trends in Japan go so far as to account for the reaction of the Japanese people to those very projections. Many young people or parents of young children in Japan today may look at the “order” of Japan today and see that it is effectively preserved by rules that disadvantage the young, whether they are rigid employment rules or a pension system that requires them to fund retirement benefits for the very same people who will happily vote to reduce them for the next generation. Just like the risk of long-term radiation exposure, pension benefits and health care are issues on which the old and the young have very different perspectives. Unfortunately, demographics and democracy mean that it will increasingly be the old — an increasing number of whom never got married or had children — who set the agenda.

How many of the younger generations of Japanese people will come to see either moving abroad themselves or at least sending their children to study and hopefully live abroad as a rational way of avoiding the burdens augured by the projections they read about today? Do the graphs drafted by demographers take into account an orderly rush for the exits before the movie reaches its climax? Do current assumptions about future pension-fund solvency take into account the possibility that many young people may no longer consider the prospect of a Japanese pension worth sticking around for?

Globalization has always been a problem for Japan’s leaders precisely because it is both disruptive of order and consists of elements that are difficult to co-opt into its preservation. Much energy and attention has been devoted to the inflow side of globalization in Japan: import controls, nontariff trade barriers, the numerous impediments foreign companies experience when trying to do something “new” in Japan — not to mention the government’s often paradoxical approach to dealing with foreign workers and immigrants. Yet perhaps more attention needs to be given to outflows: companies, money and, most importantly, people. Outflows are harder to control; in a democratic, open economy the best way to prevent them is by being a good place to work and do business — by being a place with a future anchored by something more substantive than the promise that everything is under control.

People have already left Japan to escape a nuclear meltdown that the government has been assuring us was under control literally from the day it started. It thus seems likely that even more people — young people, people with young children — will follow suit if they see a socioeconomic meltdown on the horizon. Recent news that a former Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker had managed to funnel over $1 million, much of it apparently from his expense allowance, into investments overseas during his tenure is indicative. With national politicians setting up nest eggs abroad, why should anyone else in Japan be expected to act otherwise?

If Japanese people were to start abandoning the country, whether physically or even just financially, would Japan’s current slow-motion fiscal and demographic decline deteriorate into a crisis much sooner than the charts and graphs predict? If it does, will the government be surprised, as it was when the Fukushima nuclear plant suddenly threatened to render much of the nation uninhabitable? More importantly, will there be anyone here to listen to whatever comforting bureaucratese is used to assure us that everything is OK?

Colin P. A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. Send all your comments on these issues and story ideas to