Japan from the inside out

Letter bombs (15): The people in charge

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 12, 2011

READER Marellus asks: How is Japan’s leadership handling this?

The answer: In the best way possible, by staying out of the way and letting the experts handle it. The order to fill the containment vessel at the Fukushima reactor with sea water was given by the Cabinet minister with that responsibility, but I’m sure he relied on the recommendations of the specialists. In fact, every time someone in the government mentions the Fukushima plant, they reference what they’ve been told by the power company operating the plant. My impression is that the decisions are being made by the power company working with the government’s experts.

The people who are critical in these situations, such as the police, rescue squads, fire department, the military, and in this case, nuclear power plant experts, have contingency plans and undergo training in Japan for exactly this scenario. (The same is probably true for NHK as well.) Further, everyone is aware in the back of their minds that a severe earthquake/tsunami is possible at any time. The only unexpected factor here was the location; they didn’t think that part of Japan was at the most risk. (The earthquake itself was unusual in that it occurred over a much longer stretch of fault line than normally happens.)

Those contingency plans, by the way, were probably improved due to complaints after the Kobe earthquake of a slow government response and too much vertical compartmentalization.

I watched Kan Naoto give a brief statement yesterday; he managed to get through it without screwing up, though in one or two places he came close. He wasn’t inspirational, but he didn’t have to be. I get the impression that no one here expects that from the political class in this type of situation, regardless of who happens to be leading the government at the time. Edano Yukio, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, and therefore the primary government spokesman, I’ve seen twice, both times talking about Fukushima. He was a bit tense, which is understandable, but otherwise seemed to be in control of himself and not overwhelmed.

That it in itself is important. One of the towns on the Iwate coast that has essentially been destroyed has a four-story public hospital. The reports from the hospital are that the tsunami hit the fourth story. It’s not really possible to prepare for something like that.

They are purposely trying to maintain an even keel with the Fukushima reactor problem so people don’t flip out. That means they’re not saying anything more than they absolutely have to, or until they’ve confirmed it first. The broadcast media seems to understand, and they’re not getting carried away with themselves either.

After it’s all over, it might be revealed that Mr. A. screwed up, or the people responsible for a certain decision mishandled it, but as of now it doesn’t seem as if they’re failing to do something they should be doing.

Best of all, none of the politicians are trying to create photo opportunities for themselves. They’ve all started wearing coveralls for public appearances, which is a form of photo op, but that’s standard for all politicians in Japan in a situation such as this (or even the mayor stopping by to thank people during the twice-yearly neighborhood clean-ups). In a sense, it’s a type of uniform signalling that they’re pitching in to do their part too.

Quick update: Three people from the plant in Fukushima have been taken to the hospital for radiation exposure. There was also a report that some citizens not associated with the plant have also been taken to the hospital for exposure, but I missed the number. One commentator on a commercial network criticized authorities for not releasing enough information, but also admits that a situation of this type has never occurred before. The explosion itself occurred between the wall of the building and the reactor container, not in the container itself.

There have been one heck of a lot of strong aftershocks all day long; another one just occurred in Niigata.

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