Thoughts on an Earthquake: Narratives and Governance
posted by Andrew Sutter
[Attorney and journalist Andrew J. Sutter is the only foreign member of the Iwate Prefecture Bar Association. He lives most of the year in central Tokyo. We've invited him to give his perspective on recent events in Japan. --FP]
There’s been a joke making the rounds of Tokyo during the past week or so: The government announces in the morning that there could be a sudden blackout sometime by early evening, since power capacity is down and the demand is already very near to capacity. In America, the blackout happens, and stores get looted. In China, the blackout happens and no one notices, since they’re already a common occurrence. In France the blackout happens, and people start to make love. In Germany the blackout happens, and no one cares, because everyone has solar power. In Japan, millions of Japanese conscientiously reduce power consumption, so the blackout is avoided – and then people are pissed off because the blackout didn’t happen as announced.
Aside from showing the gentleness of the Japanese sense of satire, it’s a true story, based on events in Tokyo exactly one week after the Touhoku (northeastern Japan) earthquake. The joke arrived on my wife’s cell phone about an hour or two after officials rescinded the warning.
The joke also shows a certain trust in the government and in the reliability of its pronouncements. More about this below the fold.
Who are the objects of this trust? Not national politicians, most of whom pour their energies into fund-raising, point-scoring and internal bickering. Least of all the current prime minister. Naoto Kan’s already abominable approval ratings would have taken a possibly terminal nosedive, but for a lucky break. A few hours after the morning news revealed that he’d received a campaign contribution from a foreign national (criminal only if with knowledge, but a strict liability political headache), the earthquake struck. Like a fluke reading of radioactivity, his approval ratings have recently spiked – to slightly above 28%. But already there is talk of party secretary and lead government spokesperson Yukio Edano as successor.
Rather, the trusted are mainly (i) bureaucrats, known by the metonym “Kasumigaseki,” for the Tokyo district where they are based, and (ii) local government. Japanese bureaucrats are unlikely heroes. Most of them are recruited straight from graduating Tokyo University, the most prestigious university in the country, or from another of a handful of top schools. Virtually none of them has any practical experience outside government.
Nonetheless, bureaucrats and local governments have shown that they can learn since the Kobe earthquake of 1995, in which their inaction was blamed for the deaths of 6,000 people from collapsed buildings and fires. Ministry officials have been streamlining import regulations, and, at least in connection with a project I’m working on that would send German portable power generators to refugee shelters, apologizing for taking more than two hours to answer emails. (It’s the German company, whose CEO has a Ph.D. in strategic management, that’s been dithering.) And pace some skeptics, thanks to stringent building codes, there seem to have been few, if any, deaths from building collapse during the recent quake. In our family hometown of Morioka, a city of 300,000 and the inland capital of one of the worst-hit prefectures, Iwate, there weren’t any.
The vast majority of deaths from the “tsunami and quake” are from the tsunami alone. Building codes don’t help much against tsunami. A perforated, air-filled box doesn’t have much chance against a wall of rushing water and the debris that it’s pushing. Even so, we’re far from helpless. Early warning systems and other measures were in place in many of the worst-hit towns. More lives were saved than lost.
A 5-meter tsunami, or a 15-meter one like that which hit the Fukushima plant, overwhelms such preparations. Once it penetrates inland in a valley, it can climb much higher. The tsunami reached just inside the front door of our cousin, a dentist in Ofunato. She lives at 50 meters elevation (about 200 feet above sea level). Geological records show that the last time such a huge tsunami hit the Tohoku region was in 869 C.E.
Media coverage in Japan has been thorough, factual and sad. For the first 10 days or so after the quake, even the commercial broadcast channels ran only public service ads, though seekers of escapist fare on cable couldn’t escape Proactiv’s saturation buy. For a while it was comforting to imagine that the country’s biggest problem was zits, or, to use the much cuter name by which they’re known here, nikibi. Until one started to wonder what happened to the two cheerful girls from Sendai, so thrilled to tell the camera about their cleared-up skin.
The tragedy, including the occasional miraculous rescue, was the dominant narrative here for a week or more. Practical issues of survival are now the main focus. The national system of designing schools to double as disaster shelters has worked well. Unfortunately, the lack of gasoline, and the damage to roads, rail and ports, made it difficult to provision them, especially against the bitter cold. Even the cities that fared better, like Morioka, are suffering from shortages.
This story will continue for months. The engineering problems seem to be getting resolved with miraculous speed. A highway famously torn apart has already been repaired, with less than a week’s effort. Today we heard that the Touhoku bullet-train line, whose 140 breaks were expected to need one to two years to repair, will be re-opened by the end of April. But some law-related problems will persist: many towns’ family registers – the key record in civilian legal systems, without which one can’t get married, open a bank account, get a professional license, or participate in many other activities of a normal life – have been swallowed by the ocean. Slowest of all to heal will be the human psychological trauma. Friends of ours in the television industry tell us about video editors afflicted with PTSD, from editing the images of dead bodies out of footage. How much worse it is for the tens of thousands who suffered the disaster in person is impossible to imagine.
Conscientiously covered, but lower on the list of priorities, is the nuclear “disaster” in Fukushima. Even on a day when the airborne radioactivity count spiked suddenly in Tokyo, it wasn’t the top item in the domestic news. The event’s impact on the national energy debate may be negligible. On Mixi and other message boards, the conclusion drawn from the events of March 11 is that Japan should switch to electric cars as soon as possible. The lack of gasoline – exacerbated by the tsunami’s destruction of several Pacific Coast tanker ports – has hampered rescue efforts, as well as the efforts of families like mine to visit loved ones in the Northeast or to ferry them to safer parts of the country.
Unlike the debate in the West, and despite a small but active Japanese anti-nuclear movement, there isn’t any talk in the mainstream here about abandoning nuclear power. Without it, Japan would be far too dependent on foreign energy sources. Instead, the resolve is just to make the next generation of reactors stronger. No one expects that a 35-year-old reactor could withstand a 9.0 earthquake and 50-foot tsunami.
In the early days there was even mild sympathy for TEPCO, the Fukushima plant’s operator, at having to deal with so many troubles at once. If that’s soured recently, it’s because of the chairman’s failure to visit Fukushima to apologize, and management’s negligence in equipping workers fighting the crisis: two shod only in sneakers were sent into a foreseeably-flooded section of a reactor building, suffering terrible burns.
Recent revelations that TEPCO may have stored too many spent fuel rods at the Fukushima facility, among other misdeeds, haven’t changed the public assessment of the tsunami’s effects. Nor have revelations of excessive chumminess between the regulators and the regulated, which are nothing new in Japan. (Those who remember the Bubble Era of the 1990s will recall nopankissa – coffee shops (kisssaten) whose panty-less waitresses helped bankers to entertain Ministry of Finance officials.) These are seen as issues with compliance or enforcement, not with the principle of regulation, or with the technology.
That Kasumigaseki is generally trusted doesn’t mean it’s immune from criticism. Complaining about it is a popular pastime. The Japanese regulatory scheme is seen as something that can always be improved – and also supplemented by spontaneous action.
When toilet paper became scarce in my Tokyo neighborhood a few days after the quake, the proprietors of the local fish shop asked their relatives to the west, near Mt. Fuji, to send over several cases. They then distributed a 12-pack apiece to seniors in the neighborhood. A friend who doesn’t have any connection at all to Touhoku stood in line to donate 13 spare blankets, which she had first washed and ironed. My neighbor the sweets-maker, whose family has lived in Edo (the ancient name for Tokyo) for centuries, put a collection jar for Touhoku on a chair on the sidewalk in front of his shop, where it sits unsupervised and unstolen for hours each day.
Civil society in Japan was born from similar efforts after the 1995 Hanshin quake. The attitude isn’t though, that private effort is better than government action. It’s more that government should do these things, but since it doesn’t, private citizens will pick up the slack.
Contrast that with the picture painted by the Western media. Unencumbered by scruples about alarming the locals, they sensationalize their headlines, as if all that hit Japan were not sensational enough. “Panic grips Tokyo” read one MSNBC headline from a few days ago. Lately, the finding of elevated but non-threatening amounts of radioactivity on the outstretched leaves of spinach plants in fields, and in raw milk that hasn’t yet left the farm, has become “contamination of the food supply.”
Foreign op-ed writers feel empowered to diagnose modern Japanese nuclear fears, based on 60-year-old monster movies. This, from a country that produces a musical about a guy bitten by a radioactive spider (leaving aside the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, etc.) Yet despite their supposedly wounded collective unconscious, it’s not the Japanese who are fleeing Tokyo in fear: it’s the expats. The Germans, French, Australians and many others have moved all or most of their embassy staff to Osaka, Kyoto or other cities in west-central Japan. (To its credit, the U.S. embassy has stayed put.) [UPDATE 2011/04/02: I'm told that the French ambassador himself remained in Tokyo, with about 15 other staff. The German ambassador apparently did not. And more than three weeks after the quake, foreigners remain a very rare sight, even in expensive expat "ghettos" like the central Tokyo neighborhoods of Hiroo and Azabu.]
The stream of exaggeration and misinformation about the nuclear plant isn’t innocent. American business interests have a lot at stake in Fukushima – namely, whether the nuclear or the “clean coal” industry will be anointed as providing the “energy of the future” in the U.S. market. Considering that a “nuclear power expert” from D.C. told CNN a few days ago that boric acid was used to “eat stuff away” inside the reactor (actually, it’s used for absorbing neutrons emitted during fission chain reactions), you almost have to think that despite global warming, coal might not be so bad after all.
The more idealistic strain of Western commentary seeks to blame the Japanese government and TEPCO for lacking “transparency,” and continually second-guesses their decisions. A few “enlightened” Westerners suppose the reason is a Japanese cultural preference not to speak an unpleasant truth; they assume the information is known, but just too terrible to be revealed directly by Japanese folks. (In fact, the information is often unavailable, or difficult to obtain, such as about the numbers of dead and missing, or about the conditions inside some of the reactors, from whom the wave stole most monitoring devices.)
Others see something less benign. A BBC reporter on air this weekend noted that a TEPCO spokesman was “taken aback” when the reporter suggested that TEPCO was “to blame” for the Fukushima “disaster”; the reporter’s tone of voice made it clear he thought the spokesman was disingenuous to mention the magnitude of the quake and the height of the tsunami. Democracy Now interviewed a Japanese anti-nuclear activist who had long suspected that TEPCO was concealing problems about the “seismic safety” of the Fukushima plant, as if disclosure would have been sufficient in itself, or led to preparation for the extreme events of March 11. (Of course, she didn’t really want better disclosure or to improve the plant’s operational safety: rather, she preferred that it simply didn’t exist.)
A new locus classicus of this school of thought appeared in The New York Times recently under the headline ”Nuclear Rules in Japan Relied on Old Science”. According to Costas Synolakis at USC, Japanese regulators and engineers made “a cascade of stupid errors that led to the disaster.” “For whatever reasons – whether cultural, historical or simply financial – “ say the reporters, Japanese engineers ignored “relevant data that was virtually impossible to overlook by anyone in the field.”
Forget for the moment that the only sources mentioned by the Times of the impossible-to-overlook data are two draft (i.e., unpublished) papers, one by Synolakis and the other by a researcher at US Geological Survey, both men being characterized as “leading tsunami experts.” (Forget, too, the irony that a few paragraphs earlier in the story, a former TEPCO official laments, “We left it to the experts.”) To what conclusion does “new” science lead the American experts? That a 7.5 quake would have been enough to create a tsunami overtopping the 4-meter bluff at Fukushima. Not at all that there should have been a bluff higher than 15 meters, as would have been necessary to avoid an accident in this case.
The Times piece ends with what seems intended as a dramatic and chilling flourish: ” Two decades after Fukushima Daiichi came online, researchers poring through old records estimated that a quake known as Jogan had actually produced a tsunami that reached nearly one mile inland in an area just north of the plant. That tsunami struck in 869.” The smoking gun! No matter that the plant was already operating for 20 years, or that the tsunami was more than 1,100 years earlier, somewhat longer than the projected lifetime of a power plant. Those who should have known better, didn’t; and now, tragedy has struck.
[UPDATE 2011/04/02: The Times published a new installment in this narrative today: under a headline proclaiming "From Far Labs, a Vivid Picture Emerges of Japan Crisis," we're told, "For the clearest picture of what is happening at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, talk to scientists thousands of miles away. // Thanks to the unfamiliar but sophisticated art of atomic [sic] forensics, experts around the world have been able to document the situation vividly.” From far away, but not in Japan. It turns out later in the story that the foreign experts’ insights are based on proprietary computer models (known in the trade as nuclear forensics), and aren’t “documented” by direct evidence at all.
Meanwhile, some in France have put a different twist on the story. The April 2011 issue of the left-leaning monthly Alternatives Économiques simply omits all reference to the loss of life, human suffering and destruction of communities caused by the March 11 tsunami. Instead, the cover is plastered with a view from above the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and the headline, “Energy, pollution, consumption: We need to change models!”. Within, the editors refer to “la catastrophe nucléaire” (@5) and “la catastrophe de Fukushima” (@53), even though to date no one has died from radiation or other problems at the plant. And in his back-page column, the magazine’s founder, Denis Clerc, asserts that the event “that was never supposed to have arrived … has arrived,” with “potential consequences … far beyond what one could have imagined: major radioactive fallout over dozens or hundreds of millions of people, the economic activity of the fourth [sic] largest industrial power in the world halted, thousands of square kilometers irradiated and made uninhabitable, and no doubt millions of victims” (@98). What are tens of thousands of actual deaths in the tsunami, or hundreds of thousands of actually displaced people, compared to “sans doute des millions de victimes”, especially when French eco-politics are at stake. Far be it from les chefs de la rédaction to entertain the advice of the UK’s chief science adviser, John Beddington, to the British Embassy here, that even in the worst case — meltdown and explosions at all of the reactors on the site — the impact would be far less than that of Chernobyl, and that “there is no reason from the point of view of radioactivity why you should not be able to continue to live quite happily in Tokyo.” How typically ennuyant. (See transcripts of Sir John’s conversations with the embassy on March 15 and March 25.)]
Western opinion seems compelled to unite the muckraker’s deontological zeal with the technocrat’s consequentialism. There’s no question that TEPCO and maybe others have committed, and continue to commit, bad actions. And maybe others didn’t use the most sophisticated risk assessment tools (unlike the quants at Lehman, the US Federal Reserve and elsewhere pre-2008, say). And truly, truly terrible things have happened. The fallacy is in believing that the bad actions, bad actors, and supposed “stupid errors” are to blame for the terrible things.
As my wife summarized it, “Our science was old, so we deserved what happened to us.” One has to wonder whether this sort of discourse would flourish if “cultural” factors were not so obvious. Would Americans be second-guessing say, the Swedes or Australians if such an accident were to occur in one of those countries? Does it occur to them that they are second-guessing a country with unique practical experience in dealing with the medical effects of radiation – courtesy of the United States Air Force?
The real cultural lesson here begins with a fundamental difference in the attitude toward “governance.”
Japanese political life is rife with scandals. But people can discriminate which ones should make them less confident in government, and which ones should make them less confident in particular individuals and entities. Japan has made great strides in the past, and is even now making great strides in cleaning up the mess left in the tsunami’s wake. Despite a universally-acknowledged, decades-long vacuum in competent leadership at the top political organs of government, most Japanese feel that their overall faith in government is warranted.
The current Western attitude toward government, on the other hand, is distrust. (Distrust of private utility companies is perhaps even more deeply ingrained.) Moreover, most Western media will only devote space to covering Japan – now Asia’s “loser,” compared to China – if the story is cute, bizarre, or can serve as an allegory of the West’s own anxieties. Since the aftermath of March 11 doesn’t fit into either of the first two categories, it must be adapted to the third. The archetype of the State-that-cannot-be-trusted, the Trickster government, is imposed on the narrative, and dominates it. (Or else the State as Fool, e.g. for its tragic ignorance of 1,100-year-old disasters.)
In the Touhoku disaster, these differences become entangled with differing attitudes toward nature as well. Japanese view nature as both beautiful and hostile. The risks of our life within it are acknowledged and accepted. There will be disasters, but with hard work, improvement can come step by step. The West, and America most of all, is more optimistic: the natural world is inherently perfect, or its imperfections manageable with science (the “newer,” the better, of course). So whatever the risks that people may take, if something goes wrong, someone must be to blame.
Japanese are prone to asserting that there isn’t any religion in their country. Americans pride themselves on its abundance in theirs. But the society that believes good governance is proof against acts of G-d is not at all the one those stereotypes suggest.
Image Credit: Author. The Iwate coastline, north from Kita-yamazaki, in better days.
[UPDATE: 2011/05/08: On 2011 May 5 -- late in the news-slow "Golden Week" national holiday period -- it was revealed that TEPCO might not have been so blameless as earlier thought in regards to the causation of the accident. Some news outlets (including TV Asahi and Tokyo Shumbun) revealed that when the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant was being planned, the government had suggested that TEPCO use a site elevated 35 meters above sea level. For the sake of "cost efficiency," TEPCO excavated 25 meters of soil, bringing the plant's elevation down to 10 meters. The purpose was to lower recurring costs for using sea water as coolant, and for loading and unloading supplies, equipment, etc. from ships visiting the port built to service the plant. The tsunami that hit the plant was 15 meters high. I will discuss this more in a later post. Suffice it to say that while this affects the question of actual causation, it doesn't affect the current post's analysis of the Japanese reaction to the incident during March, based on what was publicly known about causation at the time.]