Home > Opinion
  print button email button

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The eerie silence of Japan's dying democracy

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — Sometimes it is hard to understand politics in Japan or who is really in charge. The official parliamentary inquiry into the terrible disaster at Fukushima sadly proves the point. Its findings shatter the myth of Japan as a modern, well-organized, efficient industrial democracy and paint a picture of a cozy corrupt club of old boys running the country for their own benefit.

Leave aside for a moment the damning findings of the report. This was the first independent investigation commissioned by the Diet in the 66-year history of Japan's modern constitutional government.

In any other democracy worthy of the name, parliament would have urgently set aside days to debate its findings: Japan's nuclear future, and the wider implications about the government and governance of Japan would have been top of the agenda; former Prime Minister Naoto Kan would have been called to account; today's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda would have faced detailed questions about his plans to prevent a repeat of the disaster and to make Japan a safer and better governed country; the Fukushima plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., and the nuclear watchdogs would have been grilled.

Weak British and U.S. parliamentarians insist on their rights to call witnesses before parliament to account for their actions on leading issues even when no one has died. But in Japan there has been a deadly and deathly silence. It is the silence, above all, of Japan's dying democracy. It also shows contempt for the dead in the triple disasters and for living of Japan who have to suffer the consequences of the multiple failures of bureaucracy, business and politicians.

Poor Kan tried to defend himself. Noda has remained silent. There has been no suggestion of a parliamentary debate. Members of parliament are too busy with more important matters like who is making alliances with whom and the imminence of the next election to bother with trivia such as the future of the nuclear industry or governance of Japan.

The report roundly condemned Japan Inc. for collusion in the country's worst nuclear accident, part of the triple whammy of disasters last year that killed 20,000 people and led to more than 140,000 people fleeing their homes. "The Tepco Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco, and the lack of governance by said parties," the parliamentary inquiry concluded. Collusion between the unholy trio meant that they had all "betrayed the nation's right to safety from nuclear accidents."

Tepco "manipulated its cozy relationship with regulators to take the teeth out of regulations," the 641-page report said after more than 900 hours of hearings and interviews with 1,167 people.

Its chairman, Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, lamented in his introduction: "What must be admitted, very painfully, is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan'. Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism; and our insularity."

Kan, prime minister at the time, was criticized, basically for running around like a headless chicken, visiting the Fukushima plant and trying to direct the workers, distracting them. Tepco President Masataka Shimizu was also slammed for his "inability to clearly report" to the prime minister's office what was going on and provoking Kan's anger.

Having settled on the scapegoat — Kan — Japan Inc. clearly plans to continue business as usual. I say poor Kan because he was not responsible for the long history of collusion between Tepco, the bureaucrats, the nuclear industry and the simpering watchdogs. He would have been pilloried politically if he had not visited the stricken areas; he was being kept in the dark by Tepco and believed, wrongly says Kurokawa's report, that Tepco was planning to abandon Fukushima.

Noda meanwhile has been trying to show himself to be a man of action. He has masterminded the resumption of nuclear power at the Oi plant. He has rammed through the Lower House legislation to double the consumption tax by 2014 to get to grips with Japan's immense public debts. He is planning to buy the privately owned Senkaku Islands with public money.

Alice in her journey through the looking glass might recognize this world as pervertedly normal, but for Japan it should be profoundly worrying. Restarting Oi's nuclear reactors was condemned as "irresponsible" by The Japan Times, which accused the government and Kansai Electric Power Company of ignoring the lessons from Fukushima and of rushing ahead without a road map for Japan's nuclear future. The Oi plant, which lies on a faultline, has not been stress-tested for a magnitude 9 earthquake.

One critical blogger claimed that if Noda had been in charge at the time of the Fukushima disaster, there would have been no problem since he would simply have ordered "full steam ahead."

The other measures also show too many signs that Noda and his friends are trying to curry immediate political favor, assuming that the public is gullible, and to hell with the longer-term consequences. Raising the consumption tax might seem a sensible and brave attempt to tackle Japan's indebtedness, given that the debts will rise to 250 percent of gross domestic product (those of Greece are 130 percent) by 2014. But the risk is that a higher tax — without being offset by reforms to drive the economy forward — will reduce Japan's tax take via slower growth or recession and actually increase indebtedness.

Japan is sitting on a potentially devastating economic fault line. Its ludicrously low 0.81 percent 10-year government bond yields come from collusion, with Japan Inc. stuffing its banks. It will be different when Japan reaches the tipping point of a current account deficit and has to depend on international markets — which could come as soon as 2016, or earlier if the rising yen encourages Japanese manufacturers to push production abroad. That would indeed be ironic if a hollowed out Japan has to depend on the fickle international markets.

Then there are the political dimensions of a small highly vulnerable Japan, which appears not to give a damn about what the rest of the world thinks. Japan may soon come to regret that Action Man Noda did not think more before leaping into the arms of the cozy collusion of Japan Inc.

Kevin Rafferty is author of "Inside Japan's Power Houses", a study of Japan Inc. and internationalization

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.