Lack of Leadership, Elite Failure Crippling Rescue Efforts in Japan

A team from the Japan Ground Self Defense Force gathers for instruction. (U.S. Air Force photos/Senior Airman Sara Csurilla)

The military airdrops of seawater onto the Fukushima Daiichi plant continued throughout the day today, and Tokyo Electric Power Co. was nearing completion on a new power line that would restore the cooling systems in the reactors. The outlook remains bleak after a week of crisis, but Japanese officials appear to have settled on a plan to best avert a nuclear disaster.

However, the focus on events at Fukushima Daiichi belie the apparently woeful response to the crisis created by the companion natural disasters that have killed at least 10,000 and left up to a half a million homeless. Japanese bureaucracy is typically efficient and competent, but the magnitude of this disaster has left them flailing. There are mass shortages of basic supplies, including food, water and gasoline, in the northeast where the earthquake and tsunami struck. Several towns have been without power for five days. And the problem does not appear to be a lack of funds but a lack of planning and organization.

But the state, overwhelmed by problems, has abdicated some of its most basic duties, some say. “The government is not doing anything. They are not present here,” said Akase Hiroyuki, the principal of Ishinomaki’s Nakazato Primary School. Along with 20 of his teaching staff, he runs a shelter for 1,200 people left homeless and hungry by the tsunami. Classrooms serve as dormitories, and the school’s gymnasium has become a food-distribution center.

When Emperor Akihito made a rare television address on Wednesday, his soothing words were not heard in Ishinomaki: No one has watched TV since power failed Friday.

Foreign governments and charities have pledged money and sent a few rescue teams to Japan, but fear of exposure to radiation and uncertainty over what they can accomplish has limited their role. A German medical aid group pulled out after barely 24 hours in Japan.

Some have laid the blame on the doorstep of the feckless Japanese leadership. The country has had five Prime Ministers since Jonichiro Koizumi ended his reign in September 2006. The Japan Democratic Party just got into power last year after a nearly unbroken string of 50 years of rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. According to the New York Times, the career bureaucrats haven’t worked well with this new regime, and that is crippling the country in a time of crisis.

Experts consider this a leadership vacuum. I would also add that this smacks of elite failure. The bureaucrats may not have the benefit of strong leadership, but if they are failing to issue orders because of internecine rivalries and turf wars, it seems just petty. Furthermore, Japan is notorious for tightly controlling the flow of information to the citizenry; it’s why I’ve been skeptical from the beginning of their claims about the nuclear accident, and it could explain why other countries have been so slow to come to their aid. They’ve also basically outsourced control over power lines and rolling blackouts to industry, creating disruptions without warning or explanation. The people, already battered by the horror of the cascading events, are now just plain angry. It’s as if they’ve awoken to find their government less a protector or model of competence than a collection of bumbling fools.

I know how they feel.

Lack of Leadership, Elite Failure Crippling Rescue Efforts in Japan

The military airdrops of seawater onto the Fukushima Daiichi plant continued throughout the day today, and Tokyo Electric Power Co. was nearing completion on a new power line that would restore the cooling systems in the reactors. The outlook remains bleak after a week of crisis, but Japanese officials appear to have settled on a plan to best avert a nuclear disaster.

However, the focus on events at Fukushima Daiichi belie the apparently woeful response to the crisis created by the companion natural disasters that have killed at least 10,000 and left up to a half a million homeless. Japanese bureaucracy is typically efficient and competent, but the magnitude of this disaster has left them flailing. There are mass shortages of basic supplies, including food, water and gasoline, in the northeast where the earthquake and tsunami struck. Several towns have been without power for five days. And the problem does not appear to be a lack of funds but a lack of planning and organization.

But the state, overwhelmed by problems, has abdicated some of its most basic duties, some say. “The government is not doing anything. They are not present here,” said Akase Hiroyuki, the principal of Ishinomaki’s Nakazato Primary School. Along with 20 of his teaching staff, he runs a shelter for 1,200 people left homeless and hungry by the tsunami. Classrooms serve as dormitories, and the school’s gymnasium has become a food-distribution center.

When Emperor Akihito made a rare television address on Wednesday, his soothing words were not heard in Ishinomaki: No one has watched TV since power failed Friday.

Foreign governments and charities have pledged money and sent a few rescue teams to Japan, but fear of exposure to radiation and uncertainty over what they can accomplish has limited their role. A German medical aid group pulled out after barely 24 hours in Japan.

Some have laid the blame on the doorstep of the feckless Japanese leadership. The country has had five Prime Ministers since Jonichiro Koizumi ended his reign in September 2006. The Japan Democratic Party just got into power last year after a nearly unbroken string of 50 years of rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. According to the New York Times, the career bureaucrats haven’t worked well with this new regime, and that is crippling the country in a time of crisis.

Experts consider this a leadership vacuum. I would also add that this smacks of elite failure. The bureaucrats may not have the benefit of strong leadership, but if they are failing to issue orders because of internecine rivalries and turf wars, it seems just petty. Furthermore, Japan is notorious for tightly controlling the flow of information to the citizenry; it’s why I’ve been skeptical from the beginning of their claims about the nuclear accident, and it could explain why other countries have been so slow to come to their aid. They’ve also basically outsourced control over power lines and rolling blackouts to industry, creating disruptions without warning or explanation. The people, already battered by the horror of the cascading events, are now just plain angry. It’s as if they’ve awoken to find their government less a protector or model of competence than a collection of bumbling fools.

I know how they feel.