Containing Fukushima: Saving Japan From Itself (Part I)

02/25/2012 08:16 am ET | Updated Apr 26, 2012

The disaster at Fukushima last year exposed how entrenched interests among key decision-makers have contaminated Japanese society, endangering the long-term prosperity of Japan. These special interests often do what is right for themselves, as opposed to what is in the best interests of the Japanese people.

In this two-part series, discussion on what has transpired over the past twelve months as a result of decisions made related to the Fukushima disaster (Part I) will lead to a look at decision-making during the crisis in subsequent weeks and months that have passed (Part II). As the current decision-making system in Japan increasingly works to the detriment of Japanese society, what is needed instead is a more transparent, honest, and benevolent decision-making system that listens to the wishes of the people and responds to it.

Deep relationships among public and private sector players are present in all societies around the world. Yet Japan has a unique set of circumstances that make these relationships unlike any other. Looking firstly at this process sets the stage for understanding what has gone wrong in Japan.

Japan's "Iron Triangle" of power, the traditional post-war decision-making apparatus, is comprised of Administrative Bureaucracy, Organized Business and Party Government. Together these groups create and implement policies and laws. This inter-institutional cooperation establishes the foundation for how society operates.

It is a cozy relationship. Policies are established by bureaucrats, laws are then passed by politicians and implemented by the business sector. The unelected bureaucrats who formulate policies are beholden to no one other than themselves. Long-term bureaucrats have decades to nurture connections. Top officials often "retire" on to private sector Board of Directors or are granted lucrative positions inside organizations that they used to regulate, thereby forming a comfortable intermingling of the public and private sectors. The system perpetuates itself.

To lubricate the system, up to 40% of the annual Japanese national budget is spent on infrastructure projects -- many of which are unnecessary. It could easily be argued that a great number of the nuclear power plants built since the Second World War would fall in to this category. That helps explain why even though 90+ percent of all nuclear reactors are currently off-line, no energy shortages or blackouts have occurred to date.

An additional appendage to this triangle of power is the Japanese mafia or "Yakuza" which have historically been able to legally exist in Japan. The Yakuza serve to make sure the system operates smoothly. One example of this is the supplying of labor to the nuclear industry for undesirable jobs and, in particular, to the Tokyo Electric Power nuclear plant after the disaster of March 11, 2011.

Added to this mix of the Iron Triangle and mafia comes a cultural factor not seen in other nations known as 'nakama' or becoming an accepted 'trusted insider' among a respective group. This eases the process of consensus-formation. In group-oriented Japan, such strong relationships are seen as the ultimate goal to be achieved as they allow for the maintenance of harmony. Japan is a series of 'inside' and 'outside' groups and nakama relationships built over time and through mutual experience foster deep loyalties in the public and private sector.

Nakama can also become a hindrance in times of crucial decision-making where telling the truth comes head-to-head with loyalty to long-held relations. One well-known example is the case of the Japan Airlines crash in Tokyo Bay in 1982 that killed 133 people. The captain deliberately engaged the number 2 and 3 engines' thrust-reversers in flight which caused the crash. He was later found to be suffering from mental illness prior to the incident which resulted in a not guilty verdict by reason of insanity. The interesting point about this particular story is that his co-workers and even the company had known he was unstable for a long time, yet he was able to maintain his position, hierarchy and rank. This can be the danger of nakama relations -- when some one in a position of power does something he/she should not do, most are reluctant to do anything about it for fear of damaging relations.

Witness the Fukushima disaster. Not only did decision-making take too long in the early hours of the crisis because consensus needed to be formed among too many players, but there was a lack of communication due to inoperable phone systems. On top of this, the Iron Triangle players were protecting their respective turfs. Politicians and regulators protected the nuclear industry and the nuclear industry protected itself. What was best for the people of Japan took a back seat.

Observing what happened in the early hours of the crisis is to see how forming a consensus on what to do to protect the populace was a futile effort, indeed. Prime Minister Naoto Kan, to his credit, trusted neither the bureaucrats advising him nor the Tokyo Electric Power Company (which was worried about protecting its assets). Even the plant manager did not trust his superiors who had instructed him to stop pouring sea water on the reactors to keep them cool. His decision to defy that order likely prevented the disaster from becoming worse than it was. "At the drama's heart was an outsider prime minister who saw the need for quick action but whose well-founded mistrust of a system of alliances between powerful plant operators, compliant bureaucrats and sympathetic politicians deprived Prime Minister Kan of resources he could have used to make better-informed decisions," reported the New York Times.

How much of what went wrong was actually due to sheer incompetence or lack of adequate preparation as opposed to an attempt to hide the truth is unclear. But the New York Times ran an incredible piece on this "culture of collusion" early in the crisis. And it took an outsider (who used to be an insider) to reveal the truth -- that "nuclear power's main players are more interested in protecting their interests than increasing safety". My point exactly. The safety of the people of Japan was not the top priority which further shows that the decision-making system is not working.

Just ask the people of Namie, a city located just north of the doomed Tokyo Electric Power nuclear plant. Lacking clear guidance on what to do or where to go from decision-makers in Tokyo, town leaders thought it would be safe to head north to escape the dangers caused by explosions at the plant. Computer calculations, known to officials in Tokyo, had predicted winds would carry radioactive clouds north -- not south -- as Namie town officials had thought. But no one bothered to tell them and they were exposed to high levels of radiation for three days and nights. As reported in another New York Times exposé, "The forecasts were left unpublicized by bureaucrats in Tokyo, operating in a culture that sought to avoid responsibility and, above all, criticism... Japanese authorities engaged in a pattern of withholding damaging information and denying facts of the nuclear disaster -- in order to limit the size of costly and disruptive evacuations in land-scarce Japan and to avoid public questioning of the politically powerful nuclear industry".

And to further prove the point about the failings of the Iron Triangle and how members sought to protect their turf, bureaucrats initially withheld vital information even from politicians, part of their own inner circle. As the aforementioned article notes, "Some of the predictions of the spread of radiation contamination were so alarming, that three separate government agencies -- the Education Ministry and the two nuclear regulators, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and Nuclear Safety Commission -- passed the data to one another like a hot potato, with none of them wanting to accept responsibility for its results".

Added to this story were revelations the in the crucial days during and after two reactors blew up, Potassium Iodide (which blocks radioactive iodine from entering the thyroid gland) was not dispersed to people in need in the areas near the plant. Why? "Government disaster manuals require communities to wait for the central government to give the order before distributing the pills. Though Japan's nuclear-safety experts recommended dispensing pills immediately, Tokyo didn't order pills be given out until five days after the March 11 accident". Once again, the people of Japan were not the top priority.

Here is yet another example -- days after the earthquake and tsunami, on March 15th and 21st, clouds of radiation drifted over Tokyo due to changing wind conditions. The people of Tokyo were not encouraged to either stay indoors (thereby somewhat limiting exposure) or leave the city. It was not that the authorities didn't know the clouds were coming -- they did. Even the U.S. military knew they were on their way due to a computer simulation known as SPEEDI (System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information). SPEEDI was designed in the 1980s to make forecasts of radiation dispersal should an accident occur. SPEEDI information was shared with the U.S. military, but not with the people of Japan. Decision-makers withheld the information, most likely so as to avoid a panic.

So there was a choice in a "worst-case scenario", evacuate Tokyo (which might have led to the collapse of the Japanese economy) or risk collateral damage among the populace. All of which raises a fundamental question -- What gives unelected bureaucrats the right to decide what the public is told (or not told), particularly when issues of health are at stake?

Just as with the tale of the boy who cried wolf, many people in Japan no longer trust what they are told. It is now to the point where even if the truth is told, few believe it.

(Tomorrow, in Part II, we look at more evidence of how nakama decision-making hurts Japan.)

K.T. Hiraoka is a pseudonym for the writer whose name was changed to allow for honest and open expression in order to better decipher the puzzle surrounding decision-making related to the Fukushima disaster.