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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011

Tepco staff on front lines feel victims' anger

Humble pie at Fukushima crisis compensation consultation centers


By CHICO HARLAN
The Washington Post

AIZUWAKAMATSU, Fukushima Pref. — Masato Muto works for Tokyo Electric Power Co. in a rented one-story building in Fukushima Prefecture, where only a clock and a calendar hang on the office walls, and most days, only angry people come through the front door.

News photo
Getting an earful: A Tepco employee fields a call from a victim of the Fukushima nuclear accident at the utility's headquarters in Tokyo on Sept. 12. KYODO

The nuclear evacuees who visit Tepco's branch office in the mountainside town of Aizuwakamatsu are greeted two ways. First, by a letter from the utility's president — taped to a whiteboard by the entrance — that apologizes for the "great inconvenience" and "anxiety" caused by "the accident."

Next, by an employee such as Muto, one of the 1,700 Tepco workers dispatched to centers in Fukushima to help people collect payments for their lost jobs and homes — provided they first fill out the 60-page application form.

Seven months after the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Tepco owes around ¥3.6 trillion in compensation to the tens of thousands who lived close to the plant.

The payments could send the utility into bankruptcy, a government panel recently said. At minimum, they will handcuff the firm for years, forcing it to cut jobs, sell its assets and perhaps raise electricity rates for its 29 million customers.

But Muto, 40, views the payments as a way for Tepco to finally help, rather than antagonize, evacuees. The power company began sending evacuees their first compensation checks Oct. 5.

"The people who come here are furious — furious — about what happened," Muto said. "They have a thorn stuck in their heart. A lot of people tell me: 'I want to go home as soon as possible. I want my life back.' What can I do? Well, the best way to help is to let them vent their anger."

So Muto bows to the evacuees, dropping to his knees and apologizing. "This is the first step for us, to then have a conversation about compensation."

The compensation process has drawn ridicule. Beginning last month, Tepco distributed to evacuees not only the meaty application pamphlet but also a 156-page instruction manual. Lawmakers criticized the application form as needlessly complicated; even Muto acknowledges it's too long.

Most evacuees, Muto said, cannot finish the application by themselves. They often need at least two hours of consultation at one of the four Tepco assistance centers in Fukushima Prefecture.

"My longest session was four hours," Muto said. "Whew — I was so tired afterward."

On Oct. 12, Tepco began distributing a simplified four-page version of the instruction manual to make it easier for the victims to understand the compensation process.

Until March 11, Muto had worked at Tepco's headquarters in Tokyo and had been with the firm for 16 years, ever since he graduated from university. He traveled sometimes to the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates, exploring deals to supply Tepco's thermal power plants.

Before the nuclear crisis, a job at Tepco meant stability and influence, especially as Japan reveres its biggest institutions. The utility, which employs 37,000 workers and enjoys cozy alliances with the government, supplied electricity to the Kanto region, the economic heart of the country. The average employee made ¥7.57 million.

But Tepco managed, in the first months of the nuclear crisis, to squander most of its credibility and all of its good will. Its president disappeared from public view, then resigned. It disclosed the meltdowns at the plant nearly two months after they occurred, and spun false stories about the timeline of events at the facility, trying to pin the blame on the government.

"I imagine a lot of rank-and-file employees feel embarrassed by management," said Jeff Kingston, author of "Contemporary Japan" and a professor at Temple University's Tokyo campus. "Most Japanese are proud to be an employee. But nobody ever bargained for this. Tepco set a new low for corporate behavior."

The prestige of working for Tepco is gone, and so are many of the perks. The company once operated resorts and sponsored clubs for employees; Muto was a running back on the football team. But since the disaster struck, Tepco has booked almost ¥2 trillion in losses. Economists say the company will either go bankrupt — a likely scenario if its idled reactors aren't restarted — or be burdened for years over compensating evacuees and paying lenders.

Either way, "it's a funeral company," said Tatsuo Hatta, an economist at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.

Muto says he feels no anger toward Tepco. His job is difficult, he said, but important. His boss sent him to Aizuwakamatsu in mid-April to help establish a branch office — well before applications for compensation were ready.

Muto thinks he will be stationed in the town until at least the middle of next year. He lives in a rented apartment complex with several other Tepco employees, and has no wife or children. He is a part-time musician, and at his apartment he relaxes by playing the electric piano, mostly a mix of jazz and Brazilian bossa nova. His fifth album came out just a few weeks ago, and a friend helped him create the CD cover art, a hazy aquatic image of primordial critters, little snails and jellyfish — the image of life anew. The album is dedicated, the back of the CD case reads, to "all victims and survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake."

But Muto doesn't try to commiserate with evacuees; his job involves listening and assistance. At present, about 30 people a day visit the Aizuwakamatsu help center to seek compensation. Muto said a few evacuees have told him, "You will never understand my sadness."



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