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Order, Resilience Mark Japanese Response to Compound Crises

March 17, 2011 at 6:58 PM EDT
The response to the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crises has been marked by resilience and order among Japanese citizens. Jeffrey Brown talks with the Stimson Center's Yuki Tatsumi about how Japanese culture has factored into the disaster aftermath.

JEFFREY BROWN: As we have seen, there’s been incredible resilience among Japan’s citizens, and at the same time, growing confusion about exactly how serious the situation might be.

We focus on some of those questions now with Yuki Tatsumi, a specialist in international politics and security. She’s a senior associate at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.

And welcome to you.

YUKI TATSUMI, Stimson Center: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it clear — particularly in the nuclear situation, is it clear who is in charge and how well the government has a grip on this? What do your people tell you?

YUKI TATSUMI: No, Jeff, I don’t think the Japanese government has a very good grip on the situation right now.

And then I think the fundamental — fundamental problem about this current government has been that there has been a series of questions, not — even before this disaster hit Japan, about their capability for, frankly, managing crises.

JEFFREY BROWN: They were unpopular before this?

YUKI TATSUMI: Oh, absolutely.

Just — the Jiji Press, Japanese wire news, adjusted the approval rating survey about a week before the earthquake, and his approval rating is below 20 percent, which is very low for prime minister.

JEFFREY BROWN: We were seeing in the — some of the ITN reports people very clear about their — their lack of belief, the lack of credibility of the government. Do you see this as a widespread public attitude about the government’s response at this point?

YUKI TATSUMI: I tend to believe so, although I would caveat in a way, that it’s not that they completely distrust what the government says, but I think there definitely is a question that the government may not be telling the whole — whole — whole truth, that — everything that they know, that — everything the public needs to know and wants to know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give us — there is a lot of history here, so help fill us in. There is, of course, World War II. And that — to an older generation — but there is also a lot of history of nuclear power, energy in Japan, questions of security and safety.

Fill in some of that.

YUKI TATSUMI: Well, obviously, you know, during — at the end of World War II, Japan was a target of two new nuclear bomb attacks by the United States and allied forces.

And that created a very strong adverse reaction toward this whole concept of nuclear energy, atomic bomb in general. But at the same time, Japan is a very resource-poor country, so they have been importing over 95 percent of their oil supply from the Middle East. And there always is a demand to diversify the energy resources.

And the nuclear power is one of such sources. And, in fact, Japan’s — the percentage of nuclear power that is occupied in Japan’s complete, total electricity output is about 30 percent, which is quite high for the — amongst the industrialized countries.

But at the same time, there’s always been a question about where to put those nuclear plants, whether those nuclear plants are safe. There has been — like your previous segment’s commentator suggested, there has been an issue of safety, an accident in the Tokaimura area. And the Japanese government at that time and also Tokyo Electric Power Company, who runs these nuclear power plants, have not been forthcoming exactly about information.

JEFFREY BROWN: So there is a history even on that subject.


JEFFREY BROWN: There is a wariness already built in to official statements?


And then I think that the Japanese government’s first instinct is to try to convince people not to panic. And that’s why, sometimes, the tone of their announcements are subdued or — I don’t mean to say that they are — they are treating it less seriously than they actually are.

But the way of delivering the information is — they have the clear sense in my mind that they do not want the public to panic. But, in this case, more information is the better. More timely information is the better. And the Japanese government has not been quite doing that. So, I think it is actually aggravating public anxiety.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, more broadly, because, of course, there are multiple calamities here, what can you tell — it’s early still — but even anecdotally from family and friends you talk to, about what this — I mean, it’s an incredible shock for any society. So what are you hearing about how people are taking it, accepting it, dealing with it?

YUKI TATSUMI: Well, thankfully, all my friends ask families are in the immediate Tokyo metropolitan area, so I have been — established contact with most of them so far. And, actually, my husband also is in Tokyo at this moment. So, we have been trying to talk as much as possible.

But on the day of the earthquake, entire phone line was down, cell phone was not working. The only person that I was able to get through is my mother, who has a conventional landline old phone. And my husband’s cell phone was not — I wasn’t able to get through until very much later that day.

And even now, when my husband tries call me in the United States, he has to try — make repeated attempts. So, there is — it’s still clearly an issue in terms of the telecommunication infrastructure.

And then, also, I hear anecdotes from him that — you know, my mother-in-law tries to fill up the gas, and she had to wait for about four to five hours to fill up the gas.

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re not used to that in an affluent, very wealthy country, right?

YUKI TATSUMI: They are not.

They are very used to prompt, on-time service. So that is quite an anomaly. And one more thing is that especially those people in urban area are used to having abundant electricity, abundant resources, abundant water. So, even the rolling blackout that you actually do hear about in this country every summer is completely new to them, also.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, an enormous challenge, even where it’s not feeling the brunt of it.


JEFFREY BROWN: Yuki Tatsumi, thank you very much.

YUKI TATSUMI: Thank you.