Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Second Tsunami

"If the government treated us like adults…"

That is the killer takeaway phrase in Martin Fackler/Makiko Inoue’s piece in The New York Times this morning (E). If the government, that is to say the national bureaucracy, for politicians are (strangely) absent from this drama, would treat the rest of Japan's citizens as adults, or would at least presume that the Japanese citizenry over 20 years of age would act like adults, with adult levels of skepticism and caution, the collapse in trust in the national government now occurring might be avoided.

Several factors have delayed the onset of the wave of disgust in government that is now driving the country in unexpected directions. First and foremost was the shocking scale of the disaster and the need to focus all available emotional and psychological resources on the rescue, recovery and short-term remediation effort. Second was habitual passivity of the Japanese populace, inculcated by the education system and by rhythms of the workplace (it is neither neither unusual nor unexpected that political action has traditionally been concentrated in the pressing forward of the interests of primary industries or in consumer safety, for only those working in the primary industries and housewives have the downtime necessary for direct participation in political action). Third was the invisibility of the political classes in immediate discussions of the structural causes for the disaster. Prime Minister Kan Naoto remained burrowed in the heart of the Prime Minister's Residence in the initial weeks of the disaster, emerging only to face far-fetched, opportunistic and tawdry accusations of having exacerbated the Fukushima disaster (the venting controversy; the non-existent break in the flushing of the reactors with salt water, et cetera). Fourth was the at first admirable, then later lamentable, fear in the news media of spreading panic. Fifth was the successful application of lessons learned in the Great Awaji-Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. In the immediate, full-force dispatch of the Self Defense Forces, the immediate acceptance of rescue and recovery teams from all over the globe, the acceptance of the unfettered activities of non-governmental organizations and volunteers in the disaster zones, the quick supply of evacuation centers and the relatively quick supply of replacement housing and the focus on the mental health of the dispossessed, particularly the communitarian needs of the elderly, the national government showed a surprising level of competence, given the millennial scale of the disaster.

However, 10 months having passed since the triple disaster, anger over the inadequacies over existing forms of governance is spreading. Recovery from the disaster is running up against practices and mindsets that are clearly incapable of responding to the new needs of citizens. The Diet is absorbed in parochial interests, either of destruction of the opposing party or the implementation of plans inspired by if not fully drafted by bureaucrats. The bureaucracy itself, cast free of political direction, has failed to appreciate that the methods it heretofore applied to suppressing public participation in decisions is no longer appropriate or credible (E). Reconstruction in the Tohoku region and remediation of the radioactive fallout from the explosion of the Fukushima Dai'ichi plants remains passive or even non-existent, as governments on all levels – national, prefectural and local – wallow in wishful thinking and daydreaming, promising, for example, to quickly decontaminate 2 million homes in Fukushima (a pledge whose being honored would depend, one would suppose, on what one defines as "quickly"). By either promising too much or acting too little, government is losing legitimacy, as is demonstrated by the ridiculously low levels of support for any of the existing parties and the pathetic longing for a leader, even one so patently absurd as Hashimoto Toru, who has promised to take his authoritarian, regional, bureaucratic-bashing program national in time for the next House of Representatives elections (J).

It is not too late for both the ruling DPJ or the bureaucracy to rethink their positions vis-à-vis the citizens, to salvage what can be salvaged of their authority and legitimacy. However, the task is so much harder than it would have been several months ago, in the midst of the crisis, when the government was getting a free pass by the citizens to remake Japan – and more importantly, remake themselves.


Philippe said...

You should include the main opposition parties (esp. LDP) in your last paragraph, although one could easily argue that the LDP has made an **s of themselves over the past 9 months or so in this context.

And fwiw, a longer version of that Asahi piece on Hashimoto Toru & Ishin no Kai appears in English here (I’ve no idea how long those articles remain public though).

MTC said...

Philippe -

Thank you for the English-language reference.

I left the LDP out because I have no illusions about or hopes for the LDP. During the party's post-Abe phase (a phase that, I will admit, I am thrilled beyond words it got out of) its sole reason for existing was to hold on to power. In its curent form, its sole reason for existing is for it to regain power. It has no program for Japan. Indeed, the Noda administration has adopted large chunks of the policies described in the LDP's manifesto as its own in order to draw the LDP to the negotiating table. The LDP, certain that it can force an election this year and equally certain that with its partner the New Komeito it can recapture control of the House of Representatives, has said, "No dice" to the DPJ.

When a party is not willing to support its own policies because it lusts for power, it is not worth thinking about, save as an irritant.

The Chrysanthemum Sniffer said...

Hmmm. The revelation that the food monitoring is not up to standard is no doubt troubling, but this article seems to suggest that consumer groups and citizen pressure are a new thing in Japan when it comes to food safety. This is clearly not true. In fact, I would argue that the high level of standards that Japan does maintain is in part the result of loud pressure groups in the 1970s and 1980s, which saw even tight legislation and regulation as lax. Sure, their voice was pretty much absent from local government, but these groups took advantage of channels established at the local level to institute protests and boycotts that ultimately had national effect.

Of course, that doesn't fit with the narrative.

The Chrysanthemum Sniffer said...

That is "Sure, their voice was pretty much absent from NATIONAL government"