Japan from the inside out

The New York Times: As much currency as the Zimbabwe dollar

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 14, 2011

“Prime Minister Kan has been extremely busy during this unprecedented disaster. He’s screaming at people in the Kantei, he’s barging into Tokyo Electric and screaming at them, and he’s screaming when he comes back. The problem with the prime minister screaming without regard to time or place is that none of it brought about an improvement in the situation.”
– The 2 April issue of the weekly Shukan Gendai

THOSE still interested in smokestack-industry journalism might find it fun to go slumming at the New York Times website and read their article, Nuclear Crisis, Crippling Mistrust, about the Japanese government’s initial efforts to deal with the nuclear accident at Fukushima.

A more apt title would be Media Crisis, Crippling Mistrust. That the article contains a substantial amount of distortion, manipulation, and unintentional, spit-out-the-beverage humor will be no surprise — it’s a collaborative effort by two of the Times’ journalistic gimps, Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler. The former is well-known for his hatchet jobs on Japan when he was that paper’s Tokyo correspondent, while the latter’s primary talent seems to be opening his mouth wide and saying Ahhh to receive DPJ government spoonfeedings.

But perhaps that assessment is too harsh. The pair had to work under a greater handicap than usual because the Kan administration, whose party promised greater access to the media when they were in the opposition, excluded overseas reporters as well as freelance and net journalists from the prime minister’s and chief cabinet secretary’s news conferences updating earthquake/tsunami information because “it was an emergency”.

So the Times did the next best thing and faked it by rewriting the government’s handouts.

The following is a comparison of what the Japanese government wanted the Times to tell those people it still thinks are American opinion leaders, and what the Japanese government doesn’t want them to know.

The Times Tale #1:

The Kan government essentially left the handling of the nuclear crisis in the crucial first three days to Tepco, focusing instead on relief efforts for the hundreds of thousands left homeless, Mr. Terada and other aides said.

What Everyone in Japan Knows #1:

When the earthquake occurred shortly after 2:00 p.m. on 11 March, Mr. Kan and his advisors immediately went to the government’s crisis center. That night, the prime minister himself conducted discussions about ways to deal with the nuclear crisis, drawing up scenarios on a whiteboard. The discussions lasted all night.

At about 5:00 a.m. on the following day, he skipped a meeting of a group organized to deal with the emergency and flew by Self-Defense Force helicopter to view the Fukushima reactors from the air. (The trip itself remains very controversial in Japan. Critics charge it delayed the start of measures to cool the reactors. Others claim the trip had no intrinsic value, and that the prime minister made it only because of his taste for performance politics.)

After he returned, the prime minister told aides:

“The nuclear problem can be handled under Kantei leadership.”

(NB: The term Kantei in Japanese is analogous to the terms White House, the Kremlin, or 10 Downing St. in English.)

At 1:00 p.m., still fewer than 24 hours after the quake, a deputy minister addressed a news conference and said the fuel rods at the Fukushima reactors might already have started to melt. The Kantei was already aware of this possibility. That night, the prime minister and Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio removed him from his job and reassigned him because he had “alarmed the people”.

At roughly 3:00 p.m. on 12 March, slightly more than 24 hours after the quake, Mr. Kan chaired a meeting of all party heads in the Diet and told them:

“I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The nuclear reactor is fine…Even at the worst, there will be no leakage of radiation.”

TT #2

“…(A) nationwide system of radiation detectors known as the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, or Speedi. Mr. Terada and other advisers said they did not learn of the system’s existence until March 16, five days into the crisis.

“Mr. Kawauchi (Hiroshi, an MP from the prime minister’s party) said that when he asked officials at the Ministry of Education, which administers Speedi, why they did not make the information available to the prime minister in those first crucial days, they replied that the prime minister’s office had not asked them for it.”


The Nuclear Safety Technology Center (NSTC), which administers SPEEDI, sends out information in real time during an emergency over dedicated circuits to the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), all the related agencies in the government, and all prefecture governments. Tokyo Electric informed the government of the power loss at Fukushima on 3:42 p.m. on 11 March, slightly more than one hour after the earthquake. The government immediately instructed the NSTC to operate in emergency mode, which it did at around 5:00 p.m. SPEEDI began sending data hourly, and the amount of data transmitted reached 6,500 pages by 20 April. The government had released only two pages of that data by the end of April. The NSC published the first page on 23 March, 12 days after the earthquake/tsunami, and the second page on 11 April.

An article in the 6 May edition of the weekly Shukan Post claims that Mr. Edano had to have known about the SPEEDI data from the start of the emergency, which means that Mr. Kan had to have known too. The Post interviewed the head of the bureau in the Education Ministry responsible for SPEEDI, who said,

“A senior official at the Kantei ordered that information from SPEEDI was not to be made public (on the 15th). The next day (the 16th) the responsibility for SPEEDI was transferred from the Ministry to the NSC.”

The Post also interviewed the head of the NSC, who denied the story, but the magazine didn’t believe him:

“All the local governments involved told us the (system began functioning immediately). In accordance with the system’s guidelines, maps (showing radiation dispersion) were transmitted to the Fukushima Prefecture government office from the start (of SPEEDI operation). The prefectural government did not issue warnings to municipalities and residents, however. Explained a member of the Fukushima Prefecture group established to deal with the accident, ‘NSC decided whether or not to release the information, and we were prevented from releasing it on our own’.”

Incidentally, the Times found the space for the quote above from Kawauchi Hiroshi, but missed his statement published in the 31 March edition of the weekly Shukan Shincho:

“The prime minister has further stressed political leadership and Kantei leadership, but I do not think that was functioning at all during this crisis.”

TT #3

“(O)n March 14, the gravity of the plant’s situation was revealed by a second explosion, this time at Reactor No. 3, and a startling request that night from Tepco’s president, Masataka Shimizu: that Tepco be allowed to withdraw its employees from the plant because it had become too dangerous to remain.

“When he heard this, Mr. Kan flew into a rage, said aides and advisers who were present. Abandoning the plant would mean losing control of the four stricken reactors; the next day, explosions occurred at the two remaining active reactors, No. 2 and No. 4. ‘This is not a joke,’ the prime minister yelled, according to the aides.

“They said Mr. Kan convened an emergency meeting early on March 15, asking advisers what more could be done to save the reactors. Then he gave Tepco barely two hours’ warning that he planned to visit the company.

“At 5:30 a.m., Mr. Kan marched into Tepco headquarters and stationed one of his most trusted aides, Goshi Hosono, there to keep tabs on the company.

“Mr. Kan gave a five-minute impromptu pep talk, said his aide, Mr. Terada.

“’Withdrawing from the plant is out of the question,’ Mr. Kan told them.”


That’s not all he told them in the ensuing 15 (not five) minutes. Mr. Kan ordered the press corps accompanying him out of the room. The prime minister grabbed a microphone and started shouting loud enough for the reporters standing outside in the hall to hear. He told Tokyo Electric officials, ‘Kakugo wo kimete kudasai’, (i.e., their workers should be prepared to die) and said that if they withdrew from the plant he would crush the company (100% 潰れる). He wound up staying for a three-hour conference, but he was still screaming when he returned to the Kantei.

Five-minute impromptu pep talk, eh?

The utility’s workers were exposed to radiation initially reported to be 2.5 times over the acceptable limit. On the 16th (the next day), however, the prime minister ordered Self-Defense Forces dropping water on the reactors from a helicopter to withdraw because of the risk of radiation exposure.

While recognizing there was a lot for which to hold TEPCO accountable, the Japanese media wondered why Prime Minister Kan issued a de facto order to the utility to send its employees into a situation that had the potential of resulting in their death from radiation exposure (which he mentioned himself), though he has no legal authority to tell a private sector company what to do. In contrast, he pulled back the SDF — public sector employees whose job involves receiving orders that might result in their deaths — because of dangerous radiation levels.

That Mr. Kan screams a lot is common knowledge in Japan. One DPJ member — again, a member of the same party — told the media that when the prime minister barged into Tokyo Electric headquarters and started yelling at them it was nichijosahanji. (A daily occurrence; literally, “daily rice and tea”)

“Everyone’s disgusted with him because he calls in officials off the top of his head and starts screaming at them. When an official with a better grasp of the situation tries to point out his errors, he yells, ‘I’m not listening to anything you say!’ When they resign themselves to just conveying the facts, he loses his temper and says, ‘Are you trying to make me decide?’ Everyone knows something serious is bound to happen unless there’s a change, but no one can stop him.”

The cover headline of the subsequent issue of the Bungei Shunju, Japan’s most prestigious monthly, read: Kan Bangs the Table and Yells / Senior Bureaucrat: “I don’t want to look at the prime minister’s face for even a second”

TT #4

“On March 12, about 28 hours after the tsunami struck, Tepco executives had ordered workers to start injecting seawater into Reactor No. 1. But 21 minutes later, they ordered the plant’s manager, Masao Yoshida, to suspend the operation. They were relying on an account by the Tepco liaison to the prime minister, who reported back that he seemed to be against it.

“‘Well, he said that was the atmosphere or the mood,’ Sakae Muto, Tepco’s executive vice president, explained at a news conference.

“Mr. Sassa (Atsuyuki), the former head of the Cabinet Security Affairs Office, said: ‘Mood? Is this a joke? Making decisions based on mood?'”


When the man with the ultimate authority is psychologically unsound and is emotionally out of control as a matter of nichijosahanji, sends people over whom he has no authority to their possible deaths, and threatens to destroy their company if he is not obeyed, of course the people who must deal with him make decisions based on his mood. They can’t afford to joke around. Here’s another report:

“When a member of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency explained a point to him, he retorted, ‘You haven’t been to the site and seen it (like I have), have you?’ He phoned a bureaucrat he had never met out of the blue and issued instructions. He concluded with, ‘It’ll be your fault if something happens’.” (That English cannot convey the faux tough guy roughness of the original Japanese: 何かあったらお前らのせいだぞ)

TT #5

“Mr. Aritomi said that even with Mr. Hosono stationed inside Tepco, the company still did not disclose crucial information until mid-May, including final confirmation that three of the plant’s four active reactors had melted down.”


Tokyo Electric told the prime minister at about 10:00 p.m. on the night of the earthquake that they expected a meltdown to occur. Their readings of iodine levels at the plant early the next morning confirmed their expectations. In any event, instead of telling other people in the Diet that he wasn’t sure, Mr. Kan was flatly denying that a meltdown had occurred into mid-May.

TT #6

“(T)he Japanese met an hour beforehand (on 20 March) to discuss developments and to work out what they were going to tell the Americans. Mr. Nagashima said the meeting brought together the various ministries and Tepco, with politicians setting the agenda, for the first time since the crisis began.”


Onishi and Fackler pulled that last sentence from their backsides; as we’ve seen, the politicians set the agenda from the day the crisis started. That was the problem.

Here’s one freelance journalist:

“The prime minister and his ‘political leadership’ are suspected to be the reason for the confusion of the blackouts, and the disrupted transport, business, schools, medical institutions, which were implemented on the spur of the moment with no input from ministries. He criticized Tokyo Electric for providing information late, but ignored his own inability to gather information.”

And another:

“Mr. Kan’s greatest mistake was that he was supposed to be the commander but acted like a squad leader on the ground. He established a headquarters within the offices of Tokyo Electric. This was just a performance designed to catch the attention of the mass media and promote himself among the people. Meanwhile, he treated the government’s emergency and disaster relief headquarters as a side job, giving it short shrift. That’s because there’s no glory and no media coverage in it.”

Here’s a headline in the Daily Yomiuri on 17 March:

“Distribution channels blocked; Government has done nothing for six days / No specific plans from disaster headquarters”

The problems extended to foreign affairs. The Taiwanese government got in touch with the Japanese government on the day of the earthquake to tell them they could dispatch an emergency rescue team to the area immediately. The prime minister made them — and the people in Tohoku stranded by the earthquake — wait for two days until after the Chinese rescue team arrived.

All of this goes without saying for the people who know Mr. Kan best. Sengoku Yoshito was the chief cabinet secretary in the first Kan cabinet, and returned as the deputy chief after it became apparent that Matsumoto Ryu, nominally the Minister for Disaster Measures, was incapable of doing his job. He reportedly told a close aide:

“Handling affairs from the earthquake to the recovery is beyond Kan’s ability.”

Here’s an example of what that means: The prime minister has been widely quoted in the Japanese media as telling people that he is an expert on nuclear energy. Meanwhile, the Nikkei Shimbun reported that he wanted a “second opinion” from people not associated with the bureaucracy or Tokyo Electric, so he called in outside experts for a discussion. One of the first questions he asked was, “What is this ‘criticality’?”

Loathe to criticize too harshly someone who shares their political beliefs, the New York Times couldn’t find the space for any of the above. They did find the space for this bagatelle, however:

“Critics and supporters alike said Mr. Kan’s decision to bypass this system, choosing instead to rely on a small circle of trusted advisers with little experience in handling a crisis of this scale, blocked him from grasping the severity of the disaster sooner.”

Who anywhere has the experience in handling the deaths of more than 20,000 people and more than 80,000 people still in shelters as the aftermath of the fourth-largest earthquake in recorded history, the largest recorded tsunami in an area where large tsunami occur roughly every 30 years, and the resultant meltdown of three nuclear reactors?

As for his alleged inability to grasp the severity of the disaster sooner, he understood a meltdown was likely on the day of the disaster and he started ordering evacuations the next day. He was thrashed by the media and the public when it was reported on one occasion soon after the disaster that he said northeast Japan might be rendered uninhabitable, and on another occasion that no one would be able to live there for 10 to 20 years.

Of the many criticisms of the Kan administration, one of the most frequent is that they never accept responsibility and always blame someone else. Either the New York Times fell for it (which means they need new correspondents in Tokyo) or are acting as accomplices.

One reporter assigned to cover the Democratic Party of Japan told the Shukan Shincho that Mr. Kan’s behavior in the first week after the earthquake/tsunami resembled that of Adolph Hitler in the final days of the Third Reich.

Speaking of the Third Reich, anyone who wants to read the Times article and see what an English-language article in the Völkischer Beobachter might have looked like in the heyday of that publication can use the search engine of their choice to find it. No links from me.

Links are for journos on the legit.

Such dubious souls

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3 Responses to “The New York Times: As much currency as the Zimbabwe dollar”

  1. […] The New York Times: As much currency as the Zimbabwe dollar ( […]

  2. Waltzin' Jaloma said

    Always take Onichi’s papers with a large pinch of kimuchi,
    Wondering what I mean?
    Search his bio.

  3. James A said

    Man, I’d hate to work for Kan. He reminds me of a boss I used to have. Full of rage and fury, yet impotent and ineffectual.

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