On March 13, forty-eight hours after Japan’s Tohoku region was rocked by a catastrophic earthquake, a ferocious tsunami and partial meltdowns at several nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Prime Minister Naoto Kan asked his citizens to unite in the face of “the toughest crisis in Japan’s sixty-five years of postwar history.” Emperor Akihito underscored the gravity of the situation by announcing his “deep concern” for the nation in his first public speech since ascending the throne in 1990. His address brought back sharp memories of his father, Emperor Hirohito, who ended World War II in a famous radio address in August 1945 that asked Japan to “endure the unendurable.”
But even as Japan was reeling from the disaster’s death toll—which is expected to surpass 20,000—and growing increasingly frightened by the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s nuclear reactor complex, there was growing unease at the lack of straight information from both the government and Tepco, a utility with a troubled history of lies, cover-ups and obfuscation dating back to the late 1960s.
The information gap became an international issue on March 16, when US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jaczko openly contradicted the Japanese government by declaring that water in one of Tepco’s reactors had boiled away, raising radiation in the area to “extremely high levels.” He recommended evacuation to any Americans within fifty miles of the site—nearly double the evacuation zone announced by the Japanese government (which immediately denied Jaczko’s assertions). The New York Times piled on the next day with a major article that pilloried the Kan government. “Never has postwar Japan needed strong, assertive leadership more—and never has its weak, rudderless system of governing been so clearly exposed,” the reporters declared.
To be sure, Tokyo’s response to the disaster has been erratic, and the paucity of information about Fukushima was one of the first complaints I heard about the situation from my friends in Japan. But much of the criticism poured on Japan has obscured the many ways its political system has shifted since a 2009 political earthquake, when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was swept out of power for the first time in fifty years. The changes, particularly to people who remember the government’s pathetic response to the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, which killed nearly 6,500, have been striking.
Back then, “the central government was paralyzed, and the city, prefectural, and national police, fire brigades, water authorities, highway authorities, and Self-Defense Forces were shown to be unreliable,” the Australian historian Gavan McCormack wrote in his seminal 1996 book The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence. McCormack, who has lived in Japan for decades, documented that only twenty of sixty-two offers of foreign assistance were accepted; a US offer to dispatch an aircraft carrier as a floating refugee camp was refused; foreign doctors were initially rejected because they lacked proper registration; and “sniffer” dogs that could have been searching for victims were held for days in airport quarantine. Japan’s bureaucratic response was “cold and more concerned with the preservation of its own control” than with humanitarian relief, McCormack concluded.