Why did it take so long for any Japanese Cabinet ministers to make their presence felt on the site of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant — and what does this tell us about the decision-making process in Japan?

On April 9, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda was the first one to do so, when he met Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato and subsequently visited the nuclear facility in that prefecture. He promised the governor to “speed up, and raise the quality and quantity (of aid)” to the stricken districts.

All of this is well and good; and it is certainly to be hoped that not only Japanese regulators and operators of nuclear power plants, but also their counterparts around the world, will learn a major and vital lesson from this disaster: That even so-called unprecedented levels of natural or manmade assaults on such facilities must be taken into account and planned for.

Yet it was the fact that Kaieda’s visit came nearly a month after the March 11 megaquake and tsunami struck the region that stood out in that belated Cabinet show of concern.

Indeed, one could well mimic Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s now famous dictum in response to the dearth of concrete information coming from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the company responsible for the nuclear plant: “What in the hell is going on?”

Actually, this catastrophe, with its aftermath of makeshift decision-making, tells us a great deal about the way in which business and government leaders in Japan deal with crises — a modus operandi that almost always starts with it being compartmentalized to decide whose crisis it actually is.

After that, the traditional, three-pronged response is to deny that there is a crisis, while apologizing for it just in case it later becomes undeniable; to silence all those who might speak out about it; and finally, to wait until everything blows over.

When, on August 12, 1985, a Japan Airlines Boeing 747 crashed into Mount Takamagahara in Gunma Prefecture, U.S. marines at the USAF Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo were prepared, within about 30 minutes, to leave for the scene in helicopters that could rescue survivors. But the Japanese government stopped them going to the site, where 520 victims were later confirmed to have died.

What was at work there?

First and foremost, the air crash was a Japanese accident, and in Japanese eyes it wouldn’t do for Americans to be seen as saviors. (It’s fine to host their military here, however, to protect Japan from outside invaders.) Secondly, the site was extremely close to the border of Gunma and Nagano prefectures- which turned out to be a major complication as it involved determining who would assume responsibility for the disaster’s aftermath.

In other words, Japanese saw that crash as something precipitating a territorial dispute — between Japan and the outside world on the one hand, and between two prefectures on the other. So, before the territorial lines of responsibility were drawn and decided upon by all parties, no major decisions could be made.

In the case of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture, as with the 1985 air crash, precious hours were wasted.?I lost a close friend on that flight; and I am convinced that U.S. helicopters, and their crews trained in search-and-rescue, could have saved people had they been given the chance to do so that night.

Clearly, then, there are great similarities between the handling of the world’s worst air crash and, in terms of scale and economic loss, the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster.

The similarities are connected to the decision-making process itself.

When it became clear to TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima facility, that this was indeed a colossal accident, their first instinct was to localize the damage. Since the company was responsible for the safe operation of these plants, the response was that the company must deal with its own problems.

The company’s only obligation, in the first instance, was to keep the institution above it informed as to the actual progress of the remedies being taken.

The institution above it is the government — which in this case means the bureaucracy charged with overseeing that sector. The bureaucracy, in turn, had an obligation to inform those above it (at least, above it pro forma) — in other words the elected officials of the nation, with the prime minister at their head.

When Prime Minister Kan bluntly complained about the lack of information coming his way, he knew all too well that it was still trickling up through various locks — locks on a canal, that is. One is opened for information to flow through, then closed before the next lock is opened, and so on. That is why even the prime minister cannot take things into his own hands from the very beginning, since, at first, any disaster is treated as a local event, confined to one or a few prefectures. Then, if necessary, it is seen as a national disaster. Finally, if the effects cannot be contained, it becomes a disaster for the Asian region or the whole world.

Why didn’t the prime minister take the bull by the horns and exert his power as the leading representative of the people? He didn’t because the decorum of decision-making prevents him from doing so.

A Japanese prime minister views his obligation (like companies and the bureaucracy) as being to the institution above him — that is, the nation. It is not, however, to the people.

Yes, there is a distinction here. The politicians are caretakers of the nation’s sovereignty and see their duty as defending and furthering the causes of Japan. With few exceptions, they do not see themselves as beholden to the people.

Despite being a democracy, this nation still views sovereignty as being something above and apart from the electorate.

As for Cabinet ministers, their job, as they see it, is to guide and coordinate policy with the bureaucrats, not to be seen “representing” the people.

In times of such monumental crises, this is simply not good enough. If ministers had showed the flag earlier in the affected areas, perhaps the victims of the disaster would not have been so angry about the government’s response.

Although the government is making every effort it can to aid the hundreds of thousands of surviving victims of this tragedy, it is also clear that the creaking machine of the decision-making process — with its unwieldy vertical mechanism — has turned the handling of the worst disaster to strike postwar Japan into a management and control nightmare.

When, months or years from now, we look back with some equanimity at the tragic series of events set off on March 11, we may be able to safeguard our lives and our environment with technologies yet to be devised.

But the real lesson in all of this for Japan is that all its institutions of commerce and government must henceforth have only one obligation — and that is to the welfare of the populace and, through them, the world.

If that lesson is learned and its remedies institutionalized, then we might be able to say, with some assurance, “No more Fukshimas!”

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