After The Japanese Earthquake And Tsunami

William Horsley, former BBC Tokyo correspondent and bureau chief: broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Broadcasting House, 20 March 2011

This radio essay was broadcast on Sunday 20 March, nine days after the devastating earthquake and tsunami off the coast of the Tohoku region, north-eastern Japan

So many thousands of lives lost, and millions disrupted; Japan’s mighty engines of industry stilled, and widespread anxiety and fear of what damage and death lies ahead from the nuclear menace.

The people’s trust towards authority has been eaten away, as one official assurance after another about the risks to human health, and efforts to restore control at the stricken plant have proved wrong. A significant moment came when prime minister Naoto Kan was heard asking officials angrily “What the hell is happening up there?”, after Tokyo Electric Power, Tepco, had apparently failed to tell him quickly about one of the explosions at Fukushima.

Now the soul-searching has begun: why does Japan, with its marvels of hi-technology and social organisation, have such a poor record in nuclear safety?

And why have so many of Japan’s nuclear power plants been built where they are vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis?

The answer is that the postwar national project seemed to justify all these things: That was to make the country into Asia’s greatest economic power—and the goal was achieved. But corners were cut and a blind eye was turned to risks. A blind eye, too, to the many charges corruption and bribery which down the decades have reached the holders of high office. Lately these patterns have made the Japanese despair of their political class.

The sweep of history provides a clue to this baffling aspect of Japan’s political culture. From the birth of the Japanese state over a thousand years ago, successive rulers have been helped to impose their will, and extraordinary social control, through the idea of the “virtuous ruler”—one who combines political power with unchallengeable authority because he is the guardian of the “kokutai”, the national essence. It’s been called “a system of irresponsibility”.

The legacy can still be seen today, in the almost ceremonial nature of the speeches of Japanese leaders, and the habitual way in which a Japanese prime minister shies away from bold leadership, preferring to act as a coordinator, a wise and solemn guardian of the collective national interest.

A big change is badly needed now. Perhaps this tragedy may hasten the time when the Japanese government treats its population as citizens, with the right to challenge and bring down the powerful, not as the children of a paternalistic state.

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