Thoughts on an Earthquake: Narratives and Governance

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14 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Thanks very much for this, AJ.

  2. Gerard Magliocca says:

    I finally get to comment on one of your posts.

  3. This is just beautifully written, and just as insightful as I have come to expect. Thanks, AJ.

  4. I second all three comments above.

  5. A.J.,

    Perhaps CO folks could ask you to comment here on some or all of the books noted in this post over at the Legal History Blog:

  6. dave hoffman says:

    What everyone else said. This was a truly insightful and educational post. Thanks for spending a bit of time with us & allowing us to be your commentators!

    I wonder if you might comment on the underlying reason for the media’s pathology. Couldn’t it be less psychological and more economic? That is, western media in japan lack the resources for thoughtful & culturally embedded reporting?

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thank you all for the kind remarks.

    Concerning Dave’s question, I do have some ideas about that, based on my sometime membership in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. (However, due to other commitments I haven’t been attending their recent events, esp. since the quake.) I think there may be two additional reasons: editors and individual correspondents.

    Let’s start with editors. An obvious “economic” reason is that disaster, sensation, etc. sells. Rupert Murdoch already owned the NY Post at the time of Three-Mile Island; one of his jaw-droppingly irresponsible headlines I recall from the time was “Nuke Cloud Spreading”. This is true somewhat in the Japanese press, too — but there is the experience of the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake. The press were severely criticized for insensitive coverage; for example, many bodies of the dead were shown on TV and in photos, and footage was color-tinted in the studio to give it a tragic mood. This time, the press have learned their lesson, and are more restrained; the emphasis is on conveying information that is factual, and useful to the survivors and their families. International press don’t have such constraints.

    Another reason, which may be based in economics or simply in mentalités (including the proverbial exoticism, “inscrutability”, etc. of the East), is that editors in Western countries prefer stories that reflect their prejudices about a foreign country. That accounts for the number of “wacky” stories about Japan, such as BBC running a story about some Japanese temple where “people pray to a toilet”, even though there was a lot of Japanese political news during the week. (CNN has run this story too, though I can’t find a clip.) One very sincere and knowledgeable correspondent I know for a major US media group complained that she could not get serious political news about Japan past her editors in New York. Instead they want something cute like maid cafés and “Hello Kitty” theme parks, or weird stuff like capsule hotels and toilet gods, or the trans-cultural favorite of mayhem (guy goes amok with a knife in Tokyo’s Akihabara shopping district, etc.). One result is that there are very few correspondents here who are used to serious reporting; another is that the supposed differences between Japanese and Western thinking are highlighted. (As my post indicates, there are indeed some differences, but rarely the ones supposed.)

    A possible third editorial reason, which I’m inferring as a “revealed preference,” is the desire to find a US angle. The New York Times, especially, tends to present every story about Japan as having something to teach the US. Prior to this tragedy, it was Japan’s “sluggish” or “stagnant” economy. Almost every story portrayed what was happening to the Japanese economy in terms that suggested “this could be us; let’s not make the same mistakes.” As I mentioned in the post, the obvious issue now is future US energy policy. A nice example is this clip in which Chris Matthews not only shuts up his guest when the latter explains the low health risk of environmental radiation recently found in Japan, but asks him bluntly “So where do you stand on nuclear?”

    As for correspondents, the issues are more individualized. One frequent pattern, though is “I’d rather be covering someplace else.” I am astonished by the number of Tokyo-based correspondents who (prior to the quake) seemed to think the biggest story in the region is North Korea. There are also some people who are “doing their time” here before being sent to where the action really is, like China. I haven’t met the lead BBC correspondent here, but he seems to have this vibe, both in his choice of coverage and his utterly indifferent way of pronouncing Japanese words and names. Although the lead CNN correspondent seems slightly less bored by Japan, she too seems not to speak much Japanese, and often does double-duty covering Korea (she’s also of Korean heritage).

    Another large contingent of Japan reporters fall into what could be called the “old Japan hand/colonialist” mentality. They may have been here 20 years or more, speak reasonable or even good Japanese, but continue to look at everything through Western glasses. Most whom I’ve met like this are male Brits and Continentals (though some women, too, have this attitude).

    Finally, there are some special cases. One is a Japanese correspondent for the NYT who was educated at the London School of Economics. She brings a resolutely Chicago-style outlook to all her economic reporting. Her reporting on the quake so far seems to be more as part of a team, though, so it’s hard to discern what she’s currently contributing in the way of spin.

    My personal situation is that I’m married to a Japanese national, have long worked with Japanese clients and colleagues (including at Sony), know parts of the country outside the main metropolitan regions, overall know more Japanese people than expats — and I like it here. I’m not unique; e.g., there’s a permanent-resident Austrian physicist I know, now a management consultant, who’s been putting a lot of effort into de-bunking the hysterical coverage of the Fukushima situation. (He occasionally is interviewed by foreign TV; his newsletters are available here.) Of course I can’t read everything the foreign press publishes, so I have a theoretical hope that some correspondents do fall into this category.

    None of this is to diminish my point in the main post. There are very few foreign correspondents here are who are personally invested enough in the country, or whose editors are flexible enough, to portray a different perspective on government or to resist the reflex to look for “whodunit”. I think to a great deal this is because they or their editors are blinded or otherwise constrained by their home culture. Lack of economic resources seems to me to be less of an issue than the personal inclinations of, and professional pressures on, those two groups of people. Thanks again for the kind words and the question.

  8. A.J. Sutter says:

    Patrick, thanks for the link. Actually, I haven’t read any of those books yet, though a couple (the one on the constitution especially) look like they might be useful for a future Japanese book project I’m sketching out. I have read some of Mark Ramseyer’s articles, and have looked briefly at the book in the link; he uses a law and economics approach, which readers of this blog are probably sick of hearing me bash (not that I can always resist the temptation). I’ve written a book about a future direction of the Japanese economy that will be published here later this year (though I’ll need to update it to reflect recent events); it’s based more on the Italian idea of “civil economy” and on Aristotle’s Politics, which I think are a better fit to society here than a neoclassical (and esp. Chicago) outlook.

  9. A.J. Sutter says:

    Sorry, I messed up the link under “this could be us; let’s not make the same mistakes”: what I meant was this: .

  10. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    A Pulitzer for the post and I look forward to the book, as I enjoy Andy’s erudite and insightful comments here.

    Favorite line: “Western opinion seems compelled to unite the muckraker’s deontological zeal with the technocrat’s consequentialism.”

  11. Margarita Estevez-Abe says:

    Andrew Sutter gets it wrong. Japanese people may trust local governments and some national government offices (such as the Self Defense Forces), but he risks painting a picture of Japan as a mystic spiritual place. He also paints a rosy picture of the benevolence of the Japanese bureaucracy. I find it very troubling. It is the bureaucratic regulators of nuclear power plants together with TEPCO that ignored warnings about Sumatra-sized tsunamis in Japan. I’m not talking about some unpublished papers that Sutter mentions. Some of the warnings were made on the floor of the Diet, or directly to TEPCO (see below for more information). I appreciate Sutter’s willingness to defend Japan, but I must say his sympathy is a little misplaced. He’s fallen prey to the Japanese media campaign “they–the foreigners who make a lot of noise–VS we–the noble Japanese.” To be fair, Andrew Sutter is not the only one reacting this way. I have observed a very similar emotional response from foreigners (often Western men) living in Japan or married to Japanese women.

    Professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist at Kobe University, testified on the dangers of a Sumatra-sized monster Tsunami that might affect nuclear power plants at the Lower House on February 23, 2005. (Anyone who can read Japanese can read Ishibashi’s testimony by accessing the online Lower House archives.)
    Here’s a link to Ishibashi’s op-ed that appeared on 2007.
    Also see:

  12. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks for your comment. If your re-read my piece, I think you will find that I don’t say that the bureaucracy is always right, or always benevolent, or that people in Japan believe it is either one of those. My points about the bureaucracy simply were that:
    @ they learned from the Kobe quake, and got some things right, in life-saving ways,
    @ for all the bureaucracy’s flaws, and for all that people complain about them and know about their vices, most people here still have a fundamental expectation that they’ll do the right thing
    @ failing that, most people prefer that regulations should be strengthened, not dismantled, and
    @ in my experience in the current situation, they (speficially METI) have been responsive, and much more so than a (Saxon) high-tech, professionally-managed business.

    I have no reason to doubt Prof. Ishibashi, or that the dangers of a giant quake have been a matter of public record for several years. As the NYT article points out, the historical possibility of a 9.0 quake near lower Touhoku was already known even in the 1990s. While I haven’t checked the 2005 Lower House transcript, Prof. Ishibashi was recommending in 2007 only that “a nuclear power plant, no matter where it is located, should be designed to withstand at least the ground acceleration caused by an earthquake of about a 7.3 magnitude.” Even had he referred to a Sumatra-sized quake, the context was about improving for the future. This is quite consistent with my remarks about the Japanese attitude towards disasters near the end of the piece.

    The point I highlight in the post is causation. Advice like Prof. Ishibashi’s can, and I hope it will, be applied prospectively. But retrofitting an operating, 30-year-old nuclear plant by elevating it an additional 12 or more meters above sea level is not, to date, something I have seen that anyone recommended prior to the recent quake, much less soon enough to have been actionable in time for this event. Nor have I yet seen any explanation, timely or otherwise, of how it would have been feasible to do.

    Since the post was also about the differing narratives in Japan, no less relevant is that most public opinion in Japan doesn’t seem to think the accident at Fukushima was preventable (even if people acknowledge that some actions or negligence of TEPCO, regulators, PM Kan, etc. before, and especially after, the tsunami may have made it worse). Maybe you personally think that the public has been duped, and maybe you’re right. But even accepting for argument’s sake that you are, just because someone has an unfounded opinion doesn’t mean the opinion is unimportant, as watchers of American politics should understand well.

    As for your remark about Western men living in Japan or married to Japanese women, which seems to imply that any defense of Japanese institutions by foreign men has some sort of erotic “Asian fetish” attached to it, I think this is poorly-judged. (While we’re talking about erotic themes, my reference to nopankissa should be enough to suggest that I don’t buy the “we-the noble Japanese” or even the “noble bureaucrat” line.) If I have some warm feelings for the shitamachi neighborhood ethic I see around me, it’s maybe because I’m positioned to appreciate it by living here — and also because I have a half-century’s life experience in the US to which to compare it. I know more of my neighbors after a year and a half of living in my current neighborhood in Shinjuku-ku, one of the most urbanized wards of central Tokyo, than I did in the San Jose, CA neighborhood where I lived for 9 years, or in the West L.A. neighborhoods where I walked my dogs twice a day for 10. (And as for a comparison to the Upper West Side, don’t ask.) I worried that my characterization of the Japanese attitude towards nature at the end of the piece might veer into the “mystic spiritual” genre that makes me gag no less than it seems to make you, but I ran it by my wife (oops!), who thought it was fair. And since kvetching and kibbitzing are not exactly native skills here (in the analogous sense that, although there are many native martial arts in Japan, capoeira is not one of them), I am able to professionalize being a very noisy foreigner, including in the Japanese media. Really liked your book, BTW.

  13. A postscript comment to my own comment @ #7 (March 29, 2011 at 10:59 pm): Recently (May) NYT has been presenting a number of good human-interest stories about the post-tsunami reconstruction. These have mostly avoided some sort of tie-in to a US perspective. A recent story about the Japanese nuclear industry also sticks mainly to a domestic Japanese context. Better late than never. Would that their mainstream political coverage of Japan become more frequent and serious, as well.

  14. Jak Manson says:

    Earthquakes can be really scary and can cause a lot of damage too. I know that it is very important to know what to do in the case of an earthquake and you need to stay safe. Safety procedures are something that you really need to rely on too.
    Jak Manson |