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Honestly, I Would Rather Die under the Rubble Than in the Sinking Boat

Fishing boats driven ashore
by tsunami

At 2.46 p.m., March 11, it hit the northern half of Japan's coastal area facing the Pacific Ocean. Since the rundown apartment building I live in is 30-something-years-old, it is unlikely that the architect assumed a huge quake such as this one. Yet the elevator is a little more modern. So I knew it had automatically stopped the moment it sensed the jolt.

Also I knew that with my legs crippled by Parkinson's, I wouldn't be able to climb down the fire escape any faster than a snail. So I remained indoors. But even inside my 172 sq.ft. micro-apartment, I had nothing but to sit at the computer, my longtime friend, because I thought it wouldn't do any good to move around in the usable space of no more than 95 square feet. I was just watching absentmindedly the walls, the window, the ceiling, and the beams which were supposedly supporting the entire structure, all warping like hell.

It was as though Buddha was enjoying the pendulum motion of the Frisbee at Disneyland - if you can see what I mean by this.

Around the same time, one of my grown-up sons was trying hard from his workplace to reach his wheelchair-bound wife confined to their home and his old mother (my ex) who lives in their neighborhood, according to what he told me a couple of days later. Maybe he also tried to find out, on behalf of his mate, if his in-laws were all OK. They live, or at least lived, in Miyagi, the nearest prefecture to the epicenter. It turned out not OK because for one thing, his wife's uncle was swallowed by tsunami.

It didn't cross his mind to call or mail his dad, as he told me in a little apologetic tone. I told him that it's quite OK with me because I'm so used to it living in this rotten country for 75 years. Actually I think he did the right things in the right priority. I could have been crushed under the rubble if the quake had lasted another minute. Yet, I would never have blamed him.

His personality is diagonally different from mine. The guy is so likable a person that he could be a role model for the Japanese who all want to be people persons. No sensible woman would fall in love with such a guy who becomes committed with everyone, but he couldn't care less.

From my point of view, the only problem with the guy was that he didn't know he couldn't be nice to everyone, especially in the face of a crisis. But now thanks to the devastating quake, he seems to have realized that in reality, the number of adults he could save in an emergency situation would be no more than 2 to 3.

Actually he was learning the basics of preventive risk management and post-fact crisis management amid the March 11 tremor. He tried to find out, in a very short period of time, what he could do, and couldn't do, under the constraint of time and other resources. I suspect that the same constraint was experienced across the board and at all levels. Policymakers were no exceptions.

In fact, though, the likes of Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano learned absolutely nothing from the pinch. Although most Japanese and some observers in the West disagree, the fact of the matter remains that the natural calamity quickly turned into a man-made catastrophe.

I am inclined to attribute the fiasco primarily to the incompetence of the makeshift crisis management team virtually headed by Edano. And I think he had to fail because of his utter ignorance of the basics of crisis management. He and his boss Kan thought the most important thing when trying to effectively counter the crisis was to create a monolithic social milieu and a conciliatory political climate. To that end, they have been trying hard to instill a sense of unity into people's minds, through the mainstream media. TV commercials they run around the clock are really reminiscent of the prewar and wartime slogan propagated by NHK as the mouthpiece of Daihon-ei, the Imperial Army Headquarters. It went like this: "Ichioku hinotama-to nare" or "One hundred million hearts should beat as one."

Actually it was a piece of cake even for the incompetent guys in the Kan administration to create a monolith because even in the normal situation, a false sense of oneness always prevails in this country. Even the major opposition Liberal Democratic Party has now started to show a keen interest in forming a grand coalition as proposed by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

I wouldn't be surprised if a Taisei Yokusankai-like regime comes into being in a matter of weeks. In October 1940, on the eve of the oil embargoes imposed against Japan by the U.S., the U.K., China and the Netherlands, a grand coalition was formed to prepare Japan for all-out war. The only condition for the unholy alliance to materialize is that Kan yields his position as Prime Minister to Sadakazu Tanigaki, head of the LDP.

Now with all the cracks from the "lost 20 years" buried deep underneath, the Japanese are all in the same boat. No one is supposed to left out or unattended.

In the wake of the financial crisis of the early-1990s, we businesspeople, perhaps with some exceptions such as I, were using the same-boat analogy. But there always were two major problems with it.

Firstly, as I have already said, it can never be true that the life boat has enough room to accommodate everyone. Does it have enough space for social outcasts and dissidents such as those who keep busy with their looting business in the afflicted areas, those who are just panicking over the free fall in the stock price of Tokyo Electric Power Company, those who have difficulty footing the tax bills to fund the government's emergency relief programs, or those in Okinawa who badly want the U.S. Marine Corps to get out of their island more than anything else?

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, what good would it do to remain in the boat which is doomed to wreck?

In those turbulent years, we were doing what we called the SWOT analysis all the time. The abbreviation stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The real implication of the exercise is that because of resource constraints everywhere, it is crucially important to optimize the use of time, money and people, especially in the face of a crisis.

Businesspeople were increasingly becoming aware that there was no such thing as an opportunity that did not entail a threat, and vice versa. We thought a good manager should be able to identify the SWOT involved there and find the best trade-off between costs and benefits, or opportunities and risks. To him, opportunities often meant smaller risks. Total elimination of risks or total avoidance of costs was out of the question.

Now Edano, et al, were mistaken when they thought bringing people together the way they did was what crisis management was all about. Actually, this formula is not only useless, but also harmful as was proved in the first half of the 1940s. What was really needed was professionalism.

With these in mind, let us take a quick look at TEPCO's part of the story. The electricity company which runs the now crippled Fukushima power station has kept suppressing critical data since Day 1 of the crisis. When it released a piece of data, almost always belatedly, it was, more often than not, fabricated, and its interpretation was distorted by childish tricks such as comparisons between apples and oranges. And every second day, the TEPCO spokesman corrected a reading on the dosimeter or particle detector which he had released previously.

At least, these manipulations of information had lasted until TEPCO realized its traditional modus operandi wouldn't work any more when the U.S. military started flying its Global Hawk unmanned high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft over the power plant.

The brainless guy overseeing activities of the crisis control center kept saying, "Stay calm, because things out there are basically under control now," as if it wasn't a race against time. While Edano was stalling for time to allow the criminals in TEPCO to recidivate, the situation arising from the force majeure of March 11 quickly went out of control.

Why did that happen when 128-million hearts were supposedly beating as one to fight the crisis? As you can tell if you have read my post titled Honne and Tatemae, the reason is twofold as described below:

■ As the virtual head of the crisis management team, Edano thought the single most important quality of a leader is to trust his people unconditionally in the nation where the world's most credulous people think it's not a big deal to deceive each other. TEPCO knew that very well.
■ On the other hand, Edano knew that he could shift the blame onto TEPCO when things went wrong. Needless to the say, though, the government should be held more, or at least no less, responsible for the constant aggravation of the situation no matter whether someone else is found at fault. (Refer to the footnotes added on April 6 for some examples of mishandling of the situation on the part of the government.)

This is the most serious fallout of the same-boat mindset. If this had happened somewhere else, say in China, we must have seen massive riots, or at least, people must have refused to pay their electricity bills.

And now that things went helplessly wrong, Edano was in a position also to have to invite emergency relief teams from foreign countries on board his sinking ship.

It is true that nuclear scientists and engineers in these foreign crews are more competent than their Japanese counterparts who have too much vested interests in the nuclear industry to reveal the truth. But, it's a different story when it comes to foreign experts in crisis management. While the basics of crisis management apply universally, its actual practices are pretty much culture-dependent. Simply it is impossible for them to make any contribution in the culture totally different from theirs.

Here again, the Japanese government neglected to do a SWOT analysis for its diplomatic risk management. It should have known that there is no such thing as a free lunch, as we businesspeople used to be saying. For one thing, the U.S. government did not send in for nothing 450 military and nonmilitary personnel together with a bunch of equipment. As any sane person can tell, Washington is now fishing in troubled waters where antibase Okinawans who have been thrown out of the boat are already drowning.

In short, the stupid Kan, Edano and their mouthpieces in the media have chosen the surest way to fail. Now they might as well put the entire country in a "sarcophagus," just like the Soviet Union did Chernobyl 25 years ago. Even in that case, they should exclude Japan's last colony - Okinawa - because it does not deserve to be treated like that.

The worst thing about the haphazard way of crisis management particular to the Japanese culture is the fact that this way people will learn absolutely nothing from their failure.

They have already had a similar problem with Kashiwazaki Nuclear Power Plant located in Niigata Prefecture. Three and a half years have past since some reactors there were damaged by an earthquake of Magnitude 6.8. But as of now, they still remain unrecovered.

Also, there is yet another problematic reactor dubbed "Monju" in the power station located in Fukui Prefecture. Monju is one of the few "fast breeder reactors" around which generate more "MOX" fuel than it consumes. In 1995, it suffered a serious accident when several hundred kilograms of sodium leaked out. In May 2010, the quasi-governmental Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which runs the power plant, announced that its fast breeder reactor had now been restarted. But in a matter of 3 months from the restart, JAEA got into another serious trouble when replacing the fuel rod. According to the independent daily Nikkan Gendai, the problem has not yet been fixed as of today.

Now the Japanese have proved once again that they are unable to avoid avoidable risks, systematically handle actual crises and learn lessons from their failures. To me this is the final confirmation that they are done for.

Quite a few Japanese and some Americans have called me a negativist, a pessimist, and many other names as they please, simply because I have refused to board the imaginary boat. It's quite OK with me to be constantly misunderstood and vilified by these morons as long as a small number of my friends know that I have lived, and will die, as a realist, instead, who can make the most of his life with the limited amount of resources available to him.

Another thing that gladdens me is that my son outdid these idiots in the government and media organizations in prioritizing things in a systematic way. Perhaps he still remains a people person. But I see no problem with that because, after all, the fate of no more than a couple of people is on his shoulders. He doesn't have to feel obliged to take care of the 128 million people altogether.

Now I hope that when the big quake comes back, he will save his beloved ones even at the cost of his dad and many others, and won't regret about his decision.

Let's face it; you can't do what you can't do.

Footnote 1: At around 10:00 on the night of March 11, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry warned Prime Minister Kan that some emergency measure should been taken immediately because otherwise the reactor core in Plant No. 1 would start melting down in a matter of three hours. Instead of heeding the advice by the experts from the NISA, the idiot, who always claims to be well versed in nuclear science, insisted that he would do an aerial inspection the next morning by a helicopter of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces before taking any step. As a result, the suggested measures were taken at around 10 a.m., March 12. To date, not a single mainstream media organization has made it known to the general public because "it's no time for finger-pointing."

Footnote 2: According to the April 5 issue of the Yomiuri Shimbun daily, it's been learned (how long?) that the Meteorological Agency had been withholding from the general public its forecasts on dispersal of radioactive materials from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant until its counterparts in Germany and Norway started publishing their own forecasts on the web. The agency had been calculating the migration routes of these contaminants since March 11, but the only party who had been notified, from time to time, was the International Atomic Energy Agency. Here again, the Japanese media are acting as if they weren't accomplices in the crime of covering up critical information.

POSTSCRIPT April 4: Today Mr. Masayoshi Son, ethnic Korean entrepreneur and the founder of SoftBank announced that he will donate 10 billion yen ($120 million) plus all salaries and bonuses he will receive until his retirement. Those who are only generous in lip service, or token donations, should feel ashamed of their rotten hypocrisy.

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I Would Rather Die under the Rubble Than in the Sinking Boat
Authored by: samwidge on Saturday, April 02 2011 @ 09:10 AM JST

I am pleased to read your work every time you publish here and I would like to see more of your thoughts.

In this case, I see it as being easy to criticize government but if you have better ideas, they ought to be expressed right here. If you were a senior officer in Japanese government, how would you behave? Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you direct to do what?

How would you find and recruit construction teams with their equipment. How would you get fuel (on credit) for them. How would you get that fuel into their equipment and their food to their mouths?

In an earthquake, cellphone towers fall. How would you communicate with your workers? How would they communicate with their families?

How would you keep the public calm? How would you finance your employees? What decisions would you make in regard to disposing of the broken nuclear plant(s)?

You speak of some lawyers as being shysters. How would you filter your teams so that there would be no lawyers operating as shysters under your command?

As your family's elder, why did you not contact your son immediately, the man for whom you are responsible? If he had died, would you not have been responsible to lead and to calm his survivors by telephone? If not you then who?

You have said that Japanese culture is very different from that of others but, is this a culture difference? I am repeatedly amazed to find differences between your people and mine but they are always small differences, differences that have helped your people survive over the centuries, differences that are reasonable.

If the Japanese nuclear response displeases you, is there another nation that might do it better? Another culture perhaps? How would you prepare your nation for the next nuclear disaster? Would you prepare the leaders of your response teams with their vast present experience to be of service to other nations?

I ask about disaster response team future capability because, as a resident of a mining district, our people were disappointed by their own first mine disaster responses. They held classes, brought in lecturers, practiced, built models and made movies on how to do this work. Those people have for the last 40-years been respected as the world's best and are rushed all over the world to serve in hard rock mine rescue.

Do you think that Japan will make this adjustment as Israel seems to have made a similar adjustment for hostage responses?

I Would Rather Die under the Rubble Than in the Sinking Boat
Authored by: Y.Yamamoto on Saturday, April 02 2011 @ 12:01 PM JST


Maybe you think I am one of those naysayers, but as I wrote here, that's not what I am.

You wrote: "If you have better ideas, they ought to be expressed right here."

But I think that's what I did right here, and in my previous posts.

You also asked me: "If you were a senior officer in Japanese government, how would you behave? Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you direct to do what?"

Maybe these are valid questions - I'm not sure. But I think your tricky questions are based on a hypothesis on another hypothesis. What if you were asked such a question as: "What would you steal if you were a thief?" You would certainly find it impossible to answer such an irrelevant question simply because you are not a thief, and you have never dreamed of becoming one.

One's action is never an isolated deed. It always has its inherent history and background. In other words, what Edano does today cannot be understood out of the context of what he did yesterday. Likewise what he will say tomorrow won't mean anything to you if you don't know what he says today.

After all I am me with all this 75-year life behind me. I have never dreamed of becoming the Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Japanese government, let alone a "shyster."

Here's another question: "As your family's elder, why did you not contact your son immediately?" Answer: I did try to reach him by text message immediately, and gave it a retry one hour later, because telephone line was busy or just out of service all the time. For the first one, I received a nondelivery notice from the cellphone carrier SoftBank in the following day. The second message was just neglected by the recipient presumably because in the meantime I could learn from my ex-wife that he was OK, and too preoccupied with his responsibility to check on his colleagues to get back to me.

As to the culture issue, as a retired businessman who has worked in three multinational companies for all most half a century, I have learned firsthand that any business issue almost always comes down to what we call corporate cultures and ultimately to nations' cultures. Now I opine that there are huge differences between the two countries. At the same time, I know the easiest way to agree with each other is to turn to the delusive idea that the world is one and we are all global citizens. If this notion were true, I would quit blogging and become an astronaut.

It seems to me that you have problem with my favorite word "shyster." But my criterion to weed them out from "my team" would be quite simple. I would just kick out those who take things as they are for granted. I think if we want to bring about real change, we should take nothing for granted. Most lawyers that I know of think laws make us while in fact we make laws.

Yu Yamamoto