Japan’s Political Tremors

If Japan’s relatively inexperienced government is blamed for everything that goes wrong in the aftermath of the earthquake, Japanese might wish to retreat to the old ways of murky paternalism. But official opacity and obfuscation are the problem, not the solution.

NEW YORK – Rarely – indeed, perhaps not since World War II – have the Japanese had such good press abroad. Even South Korean newspapers have been full of praise for the self-discipline of ordinary Japanese in dire circumstances. And coming from Koreans, not usually Japan’s biggest fans, that is no small thing.

When it comes to Japanese officials, however, matters are a little different. There has been much complaining from foreign observers, aid teams, reporters, and government spokesmen about the lack of clarity, not to mention reliability, of official Japanese statements about the various disasters following the massive earthquake that struck northeastern Japan on March 11. Serious problems appeared to be skirted, deliberately hidden, or played down.

Worse still, few people had any understanding of who was responsible for what. Sometimes it looked very much as if the Japanese government itself was kept in the dark by officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), owners of the nuclear power plants that are leaking radiation into land, sea, and sky. Prime Minister Naoto Kan had to ask TEPCO executives at one point, “What the hell is going on?” If Kan didn’t know, how could anyone else? Indeed, Japan’s powerful bureaucrats, normally assumed to know what they are doing, appeared to be as helpless as elected politicians.

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