At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano was sitting in an Upper House committee along with then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his Cabinet. Without warning, the room they had gathered in began to shake violently, and looks of concern intensified on lawmakers’ faces. Edano immediately asked the chairman of the committee if he could be excused so he could return to the prime minister’s office.
Within a few minutes, the Great East Japan Earthquake had sparked the biggest management crisis Japan has been forced to deal with in its postwar era.
Edano recalls how irritated he was in the aftermath of the disaster because he wasn’t getting sufficient information from the areas that had been damaged. Hundreds of the local public offices had been affected by the temblor; some were then destroyed by the tsunami.
“We were getting bits and pieces of information, such as a fire is closing in on an old people’s home and we need help — the kind of calls you would hear at a fire department’s call center — but the information was fragmented,” Edano says. “There was no context on the damage to the surrounding area.”
The chief Cabinet secretary’s job is to coordinate the government’s crisis management plan and keep the general public informed on relevant information. However, things took a turn for the worst for Edano and his team as news filtered through that a tsunami had disabled the power supply and cooling of three reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
On the day of the earthquake and tsunami, Edano says officials at Tokyo Power Electric Co., the owner of the nuclear facility, and the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency kept reassuring the top government spokesperson that the reactors could be cooled if the power was restored. When this looked increasingly unlikely, the Tepco officials told Edano they could vent the reactors and reduce the pressure that was being detected inside the buildings to buy time until the power was restored.
Edano began to doubt the information he was receiving and by early the next day, the prime minister prepared to go and check on the situation at the power plant himself, a move that later sparked controversy as criticism mounted that Kan’s visit delayed the recovery.
“We did, of course, consider the political effect the visit could have and even postponed it for a stretch at one point,” Edano says. “However, we came to realize that the information we were getting was very different from what was actually happening on the ground, and someone had to go and see himself. We needed someone to connect us directly to the facility and, ultimately, we had to risk sending in the prime minister.”
Edano stayed at the prime minister’s office during the first week of the disaster. He was on call at all times, holding emergency news conferences if information arose that needed to be conveyed to the public. He recalls barely sleeping that week, apart from a few times when he nodded off in his chair. Edano was holding so many news conferences, day and night, that the public became concerned with his health and started posting tweets with the hashtag #edano_nero (Get some sleep, Edano!).
“I couldn’t do that again,” Edano says. “I could barely function owing to the circumstances. I could have delegated some of the duties to my deputies but, given the seriousness of the situation, it was necessary for the information to be conveyed by the same person. This ensured we could be consistent about the words we used to explain the developments to the public.”
The government, meanwhile, became the target of criticism, especially from the foreign media for its handling of the crisis. Edano says the way in which information was disclosed in 2011 should be reviewed, noting that confusion arose in the days following the crisis after some of the information provided by other governments turned out to be wrong. Washington, for example, alleged that the spent-fuel pool at reactor 4 had run out of water.
In hindsight, Edano believes the government could have provided information to the foreign press a little faster. The news conferences in the first few days of the crisis were initially held only in Japanese; simultaneous interpretation was introduced after five days.
Edano says he made sure he explained the situation as clearly and concisely as possible, choosing each word carefully and, most importantly, always telling the truth. He says he also made sure never to comment on things he wasn’t 100 percent sure about — including hypothetical scenarios. “Not once did I ever conceal the truth,” Edano says. “In any crisis, corporate or political, you should never hide negative information. If the truth comes out later on, it will only have a greater negative impact on the situation.”
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