The country’s leaders are being accused of lacking skills during moments of crisis. Their conflict-averse culture, too, has put the public in the dark over the extent of the perils they now face, write HIROKO TABUCHI, KEN BELSON and NORIMITSU ONISHIWITH all the euphemistic language on display from officials handling Japan's nuclear crisis, one commodity has been in short supply: information.
The 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the resulting tsunami in Japan killed thousands. — AP picture
Foreign nuclear experts, the Japanese press and an increasingly angry and rattled Japanese public are frustrated by government and power company officials' failure to communicate clearly and promptly about the nuclear crisis. Pointing to conflicting reports, ambiguous language and a constant refusal to confirm the most basic facts, they suspect officials of withholding or fudging crucial information about the risks posed by the ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
An explosion last Saturday turned out to be the first in a series that set off a desperate struggle to bring four reactors under control after their cooling systems were knocked out by the earthquake and tsunami.
Evasive news conferences followed uninformative briefings as the crisis intensified. Never has post-war Japan needed strong, assertive leadership more -- and never has its weak, rudderless system of governing been so clearly exposed. With earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis striking in rapid, bewildering succession, Japan's leaders need skills they are not trained to have: rallying the public, improvising solutions and cooperating with powerful bureaucracies.
"Japan has never experienced such a serious test," said Takeshi Sasaki, a political scientist at Gakushuin University. "At the same time, there is a leadership vacuum."
Politicians are almost completely reliant on Tokyo Electric Power, which is known as Tepco, for information, and have been left to report what they are told, often in unconvincing fashion.
In a telling outburst, Prime Minister Naoto Kan berated power company officials for not informing the government of two explosions at the plant early on Tuesday morning.
"What in the world is going on?" Kan said in front of journalists, complaining that he saw television reports of the explosions before he had heard about them from the power company.
The less-than-straight talk is rooted in a conflict-averse culture that avoids direct references to unpleasantness.
There are also political considerations. In the only nation that has endured an atomic bomb attack, acute sensitivity about radiation sickness may be motivating public officials to try to contain panic and to perform political damage control. Left-leaning news outlets have long been sceptical of nuclear power and of its backers, and the mutual mistrust led power companies and their regulators to tightly control the flow of information about nuclear operations so as not to inflame a spectrum of opponents that includes pacifists and environmentalists.
"It's a catch-22," said Kuni Yogo, a former nuclear power planner at Japan's Science and Technology Agency.
He said the government and Tepco "try to disclose only what they think is necessary, while the media, which has an anti-nuclear tendency, acts hysterically, which leads the government and Tepco to not offer more information".
The government had also decided to limit the flow of information to the public about the reactors, having concluded that too many briefings would distract Tepco from its task of bringing the reactors under control, said a senior nuclear industry executive.
At a Tepco briefing on Wednesday, tempers ran high among reporters. Their questions focused on the plumes of steam seen rising from Daiichi's Reactor No. 3, but there were few answers.
"We cannot confirm," an official insisted. "It is impossible for me to say anything at this point," another said. And as always, there was an effusive apology: "We are so sorry for causing you bother."
The close links between politicians and business executives have further complicated the management of the nuclear crisis.
Powerful bureaucrats retire to better-paid jobs in the very industries they once oversaw, in a practice known as amakudari. Perhaps no sector had closer relations with regulators than the country's utilities; regulators and the regulated worked hand in hand to promote nuclear energy, since both were keen to reduce Japan's heavy reliance on fossil fuels.
Post-war Japan flourished under a system in which political leaders left much of the nation's foreign policy to the United States and domestic affairs to powerful bureaucrats. Prominent companies operated with an extensive reach into personal lives; their executives were admired for their roles as corporate citizens.
But over the past decade or so, the bureaucrats' authority has been greatly reduced, and corporations have lost both power and swagger as the economy floundered.
Yet no strong political class has emerged to take their place. Four prime ministers have come and gone in less than four years; most political analysts had already written off the fifth, Kan, even before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.
Two years ago, Kan's Japan Democratic Party swept out the virtual one-party rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had dominated Japanese political life for 50 years.
But the lack of continuity and inexperience in governing have hobbled Kan's party. The only long-serving group within the government is the bureaucracy, which has been, at a minimum, mistrustful of the party.
"It's not in their DNA to work with anybody other than the Liberal Democrats," said Noriko Hama, an economist at Doshisha University.
Neither Kan nor the bureaucracy has had a hand in planning the rolling residential blackouts in the Tokyo region; the responsibility has been left to Tepco. Unlike the orderly blackouts in the 1970s, the current ones have been carried out with little warning, heightening the public's anxiety and highlighting the lack of a trusted leader capable of sharing information about the scope of the disaster and the potential threats to people's well-being.
"The mistrust of the government and Tepco was already there before the crisis, and people are even angrier now because of the inaccurate information they're getting," said Susumu Hirakawa, a professor of psychology at Taisho University.
But the absence of a galvanising voice is also the result of the longstanding rivalries between bureaucrats and politicians, and between various ministries that tend to operate as fiefdoms.
"There's a clear lack of command authority in the current government in Tokyo," said Ronald Morse, who has worked in the defence, energy and state departments in the US and in two government ministries in Japan. "The magnitude of it becomes obvious at a time like this."