How Bad Communication Is Undermining Japan's Crisis Response

Tokyo's poor information sharing may impede relief efforts and erode public trust


Prime Minister Naoto Kan speaks to the media ahead of his inspection to the biggest earthquake-hit site. Reuters/Kyodo.

TOKYO, Japan -- It is almost cliché to say that Japan was waiting for this quake. The country has some of the strongest earthquake resistant infrastructure in the world and conducts regular drills to prepare for the eventuality. The lives tens of thousands of survivors are owed to the bureaucrats who developed strict building codes and the engineers who built miraculously strong buildings. Natural disasters do not unfold according to a predictable order. The scientific community speculated that the next big one (the Tokai earthquake) would occur southwest Tokyo--but epicenter of the 3/11 quake was northeast of the capital. Despite the geography of the latest series traumas caused by earthquakes, tsunamis, and radiation, the reactions of the Japanese people have so far staved off far greater disaster.

The people's reliance on social cohesion initially prevented looting and the hording of food. Japanese people's commitment to clients, coworkers and others, compelled people to show up at work, whether that was garbage collectors picking up trash or rice delivery men making their appointed rounds after the earthquake. This allowed public services to continue to ensure the needs of the people, such as gas supply or food, to be met in areas where infrastructure was in tact. Few societies would be as adept at handling these events with as much social cohesion.

No doubt, the Japanese people are resilient. A mix of perseverance and a resignation to fate has allowed them to look beyond often dangerous uncertainties. But as the tragedy continues to unfold, the lack of clear information could undermine social cohesion the longer that nuclear and seismic uncertainty continues. I become more concerned about the country's fate because of the government's inability to convey accurate information, which is occurring for four main reasons.

First, it is important to recognize that the decision makers, whether they are in the government, TEPCO, the utility in charge of the ill-fated Fukushima nuclear power plant, do not have complete information to the answer all questions. Not only are they busy working, but peering into the earth's crust to see when the next quake will be and looking behind a veil of radiation to examine what is happening in the nuclear reactor is just not possible.

Second, the government in Japan, like their peers elsewhere, is balancing what it believes to be competing priorities informing the public about an evolving situation and reducing fear. Officials worry that the full facts about possible, if not likely, outcomes could lead to panic. In some cases, this reasoning may be right. But in the midst of a dynamic emergency, a perceived lack of candor in official statements can undermine the public trust and be destabilizing.

Third, sharing information within bureaucratic organizations is often difficult in good times. But communication between many organizations and agencies is often stove-piped. And if information is not shared easily through clear pathways in normal times, when disaster strikes, it creates further obstacles to get details to decision makers.

Finally, the government has a tendency to want to have all the facts before making an announcement or a decision. Releasing information based on hunches or half-completed work can be seen as a failure to do a complete job. But in emergency cases, a timely decision based on some information, is better than a delayed decision with complete information. The difficulty in information sharing at various levels has led to government apologies and incomplete requests -- for example, requesting certain people to shelter, but without giving an estimate length of time they may need to remain indoors.

To be fair, there are a number of people hard at work trying to get details to the public and the overwhelming pressure these leaders must be under is unfathomable. But overall people feel in the dark and it is unclear if the government had a plan to ensure that its citizens were kept up to date -- a crucial aspect of emergency response. I worry this lack of disseminating information and sharing best estimates within organizations and to the public is beginning to hamper efforts to get supplies where they are needed and ensure both organizations and individuals are making informed decisions for their own safety. A lack of coordination is in nobody's interest. I have faith that the leaders are acting in the best interest of the country, it is just important they all share the facts.

Presented by

David S. Abraham is a Hitachi International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is based in Tokyo.

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