Japan’s Political Tremors

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.

Outside Japan, it is widely believed that everything works differently there, owing to the country’s exotic culture. This perception is not entirely false. An important aspect of culture is the use of language. Often Japanese officials’ utterances are deliberately vague, to avoid having to take responsibility if things go wrong – a fairly universal trait among the powerful. But some utterances may get lost in translation. When a Japanese official says that he will take something “into serious consideration,” he means “no.” This is not always properly understood.