During the March 19 broadcast of TBS’ “Newscaster,” comedian Beat Takeshi complained about the work clothes (sagyogi) that Japan’s politicians changed into after the earthquake-tsunami of March 11, saying that instead of trying to give the impression that they were working they should go up to the afflicted areas and actually get their hands dirty. However, those getups are not, strictly speaking, work clothes. They could more correctly be described as company uniforms, which is why each party had its own design. In many Japanese firms management wears such attire on the job.

But Takeshi’s point is worth mentioning in that the wearing of those uniforms is strictly symbolic. Much of what a politician does can be categorized as public relations, and appearing as if one is addressing an issue is part of the job. Depending on the situation, this strategy can backfire, and as Takeshi’s comment illustrates, a lot of the government’s spin control has failed miserably. Prime Minister Naoto Kan was castigated last week when he canceled an announced trip to Fukushima because of poor weather. The sojourn was a bad idea in the first place. The people working in the area to help the victims would have only been inconvenienced if they had to babysit the PM for the sake of a solidarity photo op. But the media thought Kan was being cold.

Much has been made of the public’s deteriorating confidence in the authorities’ handling of the crisis. Every day new information reveals further negligence on the part of Tokyo Electric Power Co., or some lapse in judgment, such as trade minister Banri Kaieda’s alleged threat to punish firefighters who refused to work at the reactor. As a result, mistrust increases, generating resistance to any statement that purports to be authoritative. All those nuclear power experts the media trots out to explain what’s happening at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant may do more harm than good from the standpoint of reassuring viewers. As pointed out by social economist Ryuichiro Matsubara in the Asahi Shimbun, every time one of them qualifies a point in his explanation with the phrase, “this couldn’t have been imagined,” he loses credibility. When you say that — and almost everyone does — you sound as if you’re making excuses.

Under normal circumstances, the resulting cynicism might be healthy, but these are not normal circumstances, and cynicism has combined with despair to produce what some in the media are calling the “fourth disaster” of the tragedy: Rumor damage (fuhyo higai). Poisonous rumors typically spread during a crisis, and the dire conditions in Tohoku have produced their share. A local newspaper, Kahoku Shimpo, has reported that stories are spreading throughout evacuation centers of rampant looting and sexual violence by “foreigners.”

Last Monday, TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” relayed a message from residents of the afflicted areas saying that reports of increased dangers of nuclear radiation have had an adverse effect on rescue efforts. People who evacuated from the area surrounding the reactors were being refused rooms in hotels when the proprietors learned where they were from. A special report on TV Asahi’s “Super Morning” about the town of Iwaki, most of which is situated outside the warning perimeter set by the government, is even more of a no-man’s-land than the rest of the coastal disaster area. Local volunteer firefighters are searching for bodies by themselves without the help of heavy machinery because operators and other professionals won’t enter the town. And while trucks have delivered supplies to the outskirts, no one has hung around to help distribute them.

The victims seem to expect this sort of thing. One man from Saitama interviewed by TV Asahi said he came up to Iwaki to bring his mother, who lives there, back with him. He’s afraid of two things: One, the reaction of his own neighbors in Saitama to his mother’s presence, and, two, the reaction of his mother’s neighbors in Iwaki, who, after she eventually returns, may ostracize her for “abandoning the community.”

In such an atmosphere, any effort to clarify may end up exacerbating the problem. At first, the government’s announcements regarding radiation levels in produce from northern prefectures were almost comically self-contradictory. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano repeatedly said that eating these products would not cause long-lasting health problems, but he also asked distributors to refrain from shipping them to market because radiation levels exceeded “allowable safety standards.” It should be noted that when these standards were implemented, the government, according to TV Asahi, was thinking about foods imported from countries where radiation levels were reported to be high. They are much stricter than standards in most other countries, but the government doesn’t have time to amend them, and even if they did it would look suspicious, as it did when the government increased the allowable radiation levels for Tepco workers after the reactor failure. The government had to make an official non-shipment request so that Tepco could be compelled to reimburse farmers for their losses, but in any case the next day it made the restrictions mandatory and added more vegetables to the list when higher radiation levels were found, thus damaging its credibility even more.

At this point, nobody knows what to believe. Every official announcement, regardless of how measured it is, increases anxiety and distracts from the more immediate humanitarian crisis in the affected areas. When the food contamination story was still young and people panicked, veteran journalist Shuntaro Torigoe demanded that Kan go on TV and eat some spinach, recalling that when Kan was health minister during a food poisoning outbreak in 1996 he went on TV and ate some daikon radish sprouts to show they were safe. To Torigoe, it was the only thing Kan was good for. Now, he can’t even do that.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.

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