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RFE's Christian Caryl On Government Accountability In Japan

Writing in "Foreign Policy," Washington Bureau Chief Christian Caryl analyzes Japan's history of distrust for the government, and what the recent increase in whistleblowers means for the future.

Leaks In All The Wrong Places

Christian Caryl | Foreign Policy

As I was trolling through coverage of the Japanese earthquake disaster, I came across a revealing vox pop. A man named Takayuki Sato was talking to Reuters in Fukushima, the town that's home to the nuclear power plant damaged by the quake and the ensuing tsunami. "What they're saying on the news is that even if you're exposed, it's only about one-fourth of the level of getting a stomach X-ray," said Sato. "If it was really bad, I don't think they would cover it, so I guess it will probably be all right."

Let's parse that for a second. Sato was saying that he was reassured that the problems at the stricken reactors aren't all that bad because the government doled out a teaspoon of information -- whereas a total blackout would mean that something really scary is going on. Doesn't exactly sound like a vote of confidence in the Japanese government or media, does it?

What's more, I suspect that Sato, in his pronounced skepticism, is actually speaking for most his compatriots. (This assumption is based on my own experience as a foreign correspondent in Japan, where I lived from 2004 to 2009.) That ordinary Japanese citizens might have grounds to question official utterances was borne out early in this latest nuclear crisis. The first explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant occurred at 3:46 p.m. on Saturday, March 12, but Japan's government didn't officially confirm the event for another two hours. And it was only five hours after the explosion that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano finally announced that the containment vessel remained intact and that a major release of radioactive material had been avoided -- not that he provided much in the way of concrete data.

That prompted a spike of criticism in the media. Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's leading daily papers, quoted a senior lawmaker of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan to this effect: "Every time they repeated 'stay calm' without giving concrete data, anxiety increased." The paper ran a headline that said, simply enough, "Crisis Management Is Incoherent" and assailed the government for taking its time to disclose information. "The way the government provided information is questionable," the Yomiuri Shimbun said in one of its editorials. That's pretty harsh language by Japanese standards.

History offers ample grounds for cynicism, I'm afraid. Back in 2007, when another earthquake triggered the shutdown of reactors at the world's largest nuclear complex in Kashiwazaki on Japan's west coast, it took Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) -- the same company responsible for the reactor in Fukushima -- a good nine hours to notify local authorities that there was a problem, prompting some harsh criticism from leading Japanese politicians. And that was just one in a long history of coverups, major and minor, by the Japanese nuclear industry.

Many Japanese still have grim memories of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, when the government took days to ramp up a proper response to the disaster and compounded its problems by poor coordination and scanty information about what was happening. Many Japanese still have bitter memories of the three days it took the government to approve the dispatch of foreign rescue teams equipped with special rubble-sniffing dogs.

These breakdowns didn't happen by accident. The habit of keeping your cards close to your chest has deep roots in Japanese history and culture. Traditional Japanese etiquette prizes elegant circumspection over crude straight talk. In the Japanese language, forms of address shift markedly depending on whether you're talking to someone within your own group or outside it -- an effect sometimes mirrored in the ways Japanese organizations (all the way up to fiercely rivalrous government ministries) handle information. An American friend in Tokyo told me how he once encountered reps from a leading Japanese computer company at an Internet conference in the United States in 1995. "We went to Starbucks together, and they said, 'We don't get it. Why would we want to use the Internet to talk to people outside of the company?'" Politicians in Europe or the United States may sound frustratingly evasive much of the time, but they're generally models of clarity and concreteness compared to most of their Japanese counterparts.

This isn't quite the whole story, though. Cultural reflexes may die hard, but they can certainly change -- and so it is in Japan, too, as the pressures of globalization make themselves felt. Whistle-blowers, once virtually nonexistent in Japan, are cropping up with increasing frequency, especially since the government passed a law protecting them in 2004. The Internet is steadily chipping away at old walls that once surrounded colluding interest groups -- like the kisha clubs, the industry- and institution-specific press organizations where the price of access for reporters is the tacit willingness not to ask too many uncomfortable questions.

Jeff Kingston, a history professor at Temple University in Tokyo, notes that the scandal of the 1995 earthquake actually helped break down a long-entrenched ethos of secrecy and obfuscation in Japanese public life. In 1999, he points out, the Japanese government issued a public information disclosure law that allowed citizens and nongovernment organizations to register official requests for information with government institutions. The number of applications has since skyrocketed -- good evidence that both ordinary Japanese and the bureaucracy are taking the measure seriously. But, as the Sendai earthquake crisis demonstrates, there's still a way to go. "The level of transparency has improved a great deal, but the government track record on managing nuclear accidents makes people skeptical about the ambiguous announcements," Kingston says. "The mixed messages are spreading anxiety."

Newspaper headlines like this one in Yomiuri -- "TEPCO Official Hints Meltdown May Be Under Way"-- probably don't help, either. To be fair, of course, it's a safe bet that no one -- government or otherwise -- is getting solid information from the quake zone right now. Telephone networks, both mobile and land-line, are still out of commission in large swaths of the quake-affected region. Evacuations, damaged roads and rail lines, and the complex machinery of the huge relief effort now swinging into gear don't make the job of gathering and spreading information any easier. And, of course, there's also the tricky imperative to avoid sowing needless panic. So we should certainly cut the Japanese government some slack on this score. But that certainly doesn't mean we should give them a pass, either. The Japanese public certainly isn't.