Sleepwalking through a crisis

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am

More than two weeks after a massive earthquake of 9 magnitude triggered a horrendous tsunami and crippling damage to a major nuclear plant, it is as if Japan is still sleeping through a raging nightmare.

The devastated area is a wasteland, with swathes of towns and villages destroyed and the debris swept and scattered miles inland. It is humbling to witness the fortitude of victims, some with harrowing tales of their own narrow escape and the numbing death of loved ones. They sit patiently in inadequate temporary shelters with precious few amenities that would allow them to dare to hope their shattered lives would be rebuilt.

More than 100,000 Self-Defence Force troops are at full stretch working on relief and helping brave workers try to cool down and bring under control the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.

Although better news has come from the Fukushima plant, which again has electricity, restoring full control over the nuclear reactors is still proving elusive. Discovery of increasing radiation levels in tap water as far away as Tokyo and of contaminated vegetables unsafe for consumption have come with assurances that, for the first time in recent Japanese history, the government is being as honest as it can with the facts.

Ordinary Tokyo citizens are nervously stocking up. Ultra-careful foreign governments are banning all exports from Japan of food and vegetables. Radiation has been picked up as far away as Iceland, in minute traces, say the experts, of no worry to human health, but the weather forecast predicts a reversal of the winds to blow radiation inland instead of out to sea as has been happening.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan is clearly proving not to be the man with the plan that will put Japan on its feet again, let alone remedy both specific and general deficiencies in the way the country is organised. Kan and his team are still in pristinely laundered jump-suit mode, ready to spring into action to help but staying safely in Tokyo.

By now, the politicians should be working on a multi-tiered plan, although even the immediate provisions will have to wait until the Fukushima plant is under control.

Immediately, there needs to be continuing relief and rehabilitation, restoration of homes, factories, roads and communications that can be saved, and moving evacuated people into more secure accommodation where they can resume their lives until permanent homes and offices can be constructed. This means learning the lessons of shoddy and corrupt work after the Kobe earthquake of 1995.

Estimated costs of this disaster are rising through US$300 billion, or three times those of 1995.

In the short term, there must be an inquest into how Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the operators of the Fukushima plant and of much of Japan's nuclear capacity, managed to evade safety checks and why they stored more spent fuel rods at the facility than was safe.

This would include an assessment of whether nuclear power is a safe option for earthquake- and tsunami-prone Japan - the very word tsunami is Japan's contribution to global language - and, if so, what the safety standards should be and how to implement them strictly.

It should involve an investigation into the cosiness, collusion and corruption between leading officials and Tepco and how to prevent its phoenix-like rebirth between officials, politicians and construction companies on the make for fast bucks out of the reconstruction of the devastated areas of northern Honshu.

Beyond that, Japan would benefit from a medium- to long-term study of what sort of 21st-century country it aspires to be, which would include looking at the structure of the economy and the role of agriculture, industry and trade and foreign relations in a globalising world. It would also be helpful to examine relations between politicians, bureaucrats, corporate leaders and the people at large.

But all this means political choices, and Japan needs politicians who will lead but consult and respond to the people. Kan offered to bring opposition leader Sadakazu Tanigaki into a grand coalition government. Tanigaki refused. Why should he join when Kan had not spelled out how a coalition would work? But neither Tanigaki nor any of the other contenders for power have shown much understanding or initiative as to how they might contribute to a national rebuilding.

Politicians of all persuasions seem to be in sleepwalking mode, waiting to wake up so that they can resume their normal petty squabbling. Japanese politics resembles a child's kaleidoscope full of colourful clashing pieces of paper. You put it up to your eye a moment later and the bits have all changed position but they are still clashing with no clear pattern, order or principles.

Apart from the principal officers of state, most of the 18 members of the cabinet are ministers of catchy slogans. Kaoru Yosano, for example, was brought in as a fiscal hawk who would find a way of raising new taxes to tackle the yawning budget deficit. His title is minister of state for economic and fiscal policy; minister of state for measures for declining birthrate, and gender equality; minister for total reform of social security and tax. There is a separate finance minister and a minister of economy and trade.

After the earthquake, but before the 2011 budget has been passed, there is talk of three supplementary budgets in the 2011 fiscal year, but no thought of how to pay for them. The sport of the budget was supposed to be whether Kan would have to quit or call an election as the price of its passage. If he values his own skin, Kan had better start putting together a plan before his rivals wake up.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator