Introspective Japan's dangerous fault line

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2007, 12:00am

Japanese often claim supremacy over 'less advanced' Asian nations based on their ability to export 'more advanced' products, such as nuclear technology to China. But critics differentiate between its sophisticated hardware, such as environmentally friendly cars, and its awkward software, like dealing with an earthquake at the world's most powerful nuclear plant.

At a time when international attention was supposed to be focused on North Korea's nuclear sites, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been asking Japan to give a thorough report of the mayhem after last week's quake in Niigata prefecture, which killed 10 people, injured more than 1,000, and shook Japan's confidence in its largest utility - the Tokyo Electric Company.

With 55 nuclear reactors nationwide and plans to build 11 more in the next 10 years, Japan sent mixed signals. The government, which first said no to the IAEA request, announced on Sunday it would share information with the agency but would not allow it to inspect sites. This is a typically vague Japanese response to international pressure.

Change is needed because Japan's handling of disasters is a disaster in itself. Japan, which forbade foreign intrusion for more than three centuries, is still not set up to accept foreign assistance during a crisis. People here still talk about how Tokyo, for three critical days, refused entry to sniffer-dog teams from Switzerland, France and others who could have saved lives after the Kobe earthquake in 1995, which killed 6,400 and doomed the economy for a decade.

The problem lies in the way Japanese perceive foreign relations. For them, foreign aid means rich, developed countries (that is, Japan) building bridges for Sri Lanka, buying raw timber from Indonesia, and donating it to Africa through UN bodies. For Japanese, requiring help from outsiders harms their national pride rooted in a samurai bent for perfection and a suicidal sense of shame for making even a minor mistake.

In this case, Tokyo Electric released information in stages, which irked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and admitted that the plant wasn't designed to handle the size of earthquakes that hit this country every few years.

They also didn't know about an undersea fault line only 9km away from their seaside setting. With a broken fire hydrant and only four employees working on it for two hours, they couldn't even put out a fire at a transformer on their own, let alone keep 400 drums of radioactive material from tipping over.

Japan could benefit from the dynamic energy which foreigners bring to Hong Kong, Toronto, New York and London.

With an infusion of human software to go along with their world-class hardware, mono-ethnic Japan would be better prepared to compete with an increasingly multicultural America, integrating Europe, and prospering China. Without it, Japan is sitting on a dangerous fault line.

Christopher Johnson is a Tokyo-based journalist and author of Siamese Dreams