There was a truly saddening story on the front page of the New York Times on June 13 about events surrounding the Japanese government’s response to the Fukushima crisis in the days immediately after the earthquake. Prime Minister Kan rightly mistrusted the nuclear industry and the government’s own nuclear experts, the article says, and hence relied upon a small group of close advisors, none of whom had expertise in the problem. The officials in the relevant
government ministries with material information that could have saved lives didn’t bother to try to get this information to the Prime Minister because, they said, he didn’t ask for it. The company hid information from the government. The academic experts obscured the issues. According to the Times, these people only started actually speaking to one another when the Americans came in and demanded information–and hence they all had to get on the same page about what to tell the Americans at their daily briefing. As I was discussing this over lunch with a senior bureaucrat today, he sighed–Japanese are people who don’t take any responsibility. And indeed, the only person (save perhaps the Prime Minister and his crew) who took any personal responsibility in all of this to do what they could for the welfare of their fellow-citizens was the manager of the Fukushima plant, did so by actually disobeying the orders of his superiors (and thereby probably saved many lives).
We often think of Japan as a country in which people know how to cooperate, and indeed the foreign news media has been full of wonderful stories about how much cooperation there has been among the citizenry in the aftermath of the earthquake. But at least at the policy and corporate levels this was a case of failed cooperation of an almost unthinkable magnitude with disastrous and enduring consequences.
Although readers of this blog know I am a big defender of Japan against Western stereotypes of all that is wrong with the place, I have to say that the Fukushima incident has given me pause. Japanese may be able to cooperate in certain settings–they know how to work together within the family or the company or how to line up for the subway–but what does this disastrous failure of cooperation and lack of will on the part of politicians, bureaucrats and corporate executives to sacrifice for the public good, or at least take responsibility to do all they can in this case, say about the Japanese cooperative ability? What kind of response is it, for a ministry bureaucrat questioned by the Times as to why he did not inform the Prime Ministry that they had a warning system available to let the public know the radiation risks they were facing and thus possibly avert tens of thousands of future cases of cancer, to say “well, he didn’t ask”?
My own country certainly has its sickening examples of government officials failing to live up to their public responsibilities or work together collegially. But in Japan too, perhaps, there is a need for some serious reflection on how to build a more cooperative culture.