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Containing Fukushima: Saving Japan From Itself (Part II)

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Yesterday, in Part I of this series, we looked at "nakama" decision-making in Japan during the initial days of the Fukushima crisis. In Part II, the discussion continues with more evidence that the current decision-making system in Japan needs reform.

In the weeks and months since the March 2011 disaster, a plethora of examples have come to light confirming that the danger to Japan's future lies from within. Throughout the peak of the crisis and as a result of the core meltdowns, Japan's Iron Triangle continued to withhold information about the true nature of the massive radiation exposure in to the air and sea and on to the land throughout Japan. In the months following the huge radiation releases, consistent 'underestimations' of both the amount and types of radiation released came to light.

Making matters worse, it was confirmed earlier this year that none of the nuclear task forces in charge of making critical decisions during the crisis bothered to keep either written or verbal records of their meetings, raising questions about true intent. "The nuclear disaster task force failed to keep any records of its meetings, leaving no trace of the crucial debates and decisions -- including the scope of evacuation orders -- that occurred following the accident. This latest blunder prompted the Asahi Shimbun to denounce on January 26 a "monumental level of ineptitude" and "deliberate negligence" on the part of NISA, ministry bureaucrats and the political leadership." Strategic decision or unfortunate oversight?

It is clear that lax oversight resulting from nakama relations set the stage for the Fukushima disaster. "Friendly relations between regulators and the (nuclear) industry often resulted in rubber-stamping of the minimum safety steps proposed by operators, and safety inspections are based on techniques from 30 years ago".

In another recent example of doing what is best for nakama connections (and not for the people of Japan), Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara decided to accept radioactive debris for incineration in Tokyo, a municipality encompassing suburbs totaling 32 million people. This strategic decision did not take in to account the wishes of the people of Tokyo who were never asked (via referendum) whether they wanted to accept the debris. Instead, Ishihara and his nakama circle of friends gave the green light for radioactive debris from Miyagi Prefecture to be burned in Tokyo's sewage waste disposal system. Not only does the burning of debris re-release radionuclides in to the air in Tokyo, it produces ash that is subsequently being dumped in to Tokyo Bay. Why in Tokyo Bay? Because this is not a legal violation of the "Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter" to which Japan is a member. It seems Tokyo Bay is not part of the ocean.

When the system that governs a populace has limited checks and balances, it is easy to not be transparent. Yet the price that has been paid as a result of not being forthright has deeply damaged the bond of trust between the Iron Triangle and the people of Japan. This is reflected not only in political polls, but also in how people have had to alter the way they live their lives as a consequence of decisions made.

As the aforementioned occurs, an appeal to one's patriotism is becoming ever-present. In what seems to be a mix of nationalism and desperation, government officials are publicly stating that the nation must "assist" the Tohoku region affected by the earthquake, tsunami and radioactive releases. "Assist" is a sugar-coated word for several things: spending trillions of yen to rebuild the region (much of which will line the pockets of the nakama members), raising the consumption tax to perhaps 15% (from the current 5%) to pay for it, increasing electricity rates to pay for Tokyo Electric Power's ultimate nationalization and lawsuits, and saving the agricultural industry by agreeing to eat products from the region in a sign that "we are all in this together." Children are fed foods that are untested for radionuclides and/or their parents are chastised for not agreeing to do so.

"Being a good Japanese" is akin to doing what you are told.

Yet there are signs that the people of Japan are not buying this line of thinking blindly. In February 2012, the Governor of Saitama Prefecture boldly stood up to authorities and demanded to know why not a single official involved with the Fukushima plant disaster has been arrested or prosecuted. This is an excellent question.

Given that faith in leadership has now been lost, an equally good question becomes one of how to restore it. For re-establishing trust in Japan is crucial to its future -- not only for Japanese but also for those who will fill the gap from its impending population plunge. Japan's population is estimated to decline by roughly one million people a year so that by 2110, the population will be two-thirds lower than it is presently today. To hope that Japanese couples will suddenly decide to increase family size given space and wage limitations is wishful thinking. Looking overseas to lure more non-Japanese is possible, but reducing perceived deception will be a prerequisite to being successful.

Whether that means turning the current power structure upside down is certainly up to the people of Japan to decide. There is already talk of allowing the public to elect Prime Minister. What is certain is that continuing to permit unelected officials to be in charge of critical decision-making in times of crisis clearly is not the answer. However, "removing the monolithic grip of bureaucratic power and reinstating the force of the people's democratic will would be the first best step." What is most needed for Japan to get out of its current intellectual slump and to restore vitality are government and corporate sectors that espouse transparency and accountability consistently and over time.

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.