Thu, May 05, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Japanese passion for process is on display in marathon press briefings

TEDIUM, NOT ACTION:Merging four daily briefings into one means bureaucrats and officials take turns speaking or reading verbatim from briefing papers


Tokyo Electric Power Co president Masataka Shimizu, center of blue jackets, is joined by his employees as they bow yesterday to evacuees from the town of Namie to apologize at a shelter in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.

Photo: AFP

Japanese officials under public pressure to streamline information flows about the crisis at a radiation-spewing nuclear plant came up with a solution: They merged four separate daily briefings into one.

The result is a marathon of highly technical information delivered in dull and excruciating detail that regularly drags on for four hours or more, to the dismay of the patiently long-suffering reporters.

To some, this dragged-out daily rundown has become another symbol of Japan’s cultural passion for process — the very opposite of the decisive, topdown leadership that some experts say is desperately needed during the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

“What is missing is one strong balanced leadership to align everything toward one goal,” said Shuri Fukunaga, managing director of Burson-Marsteller in Tokyo, who consults firms and governments about crisis communications.

Fukunaga says Japan is skilled at teamwork, which is good under normal times.

However, it it’s a dismal failure at having a clear leader take control — a vital necessity during a crisis.

“The leaders tend to be more of a figurehead when what you need is someone to roll up your sleeves and jump in,” she said.

Certainly, there has been little sign of sleeve rolling at the nightly nuclear briefings for the press. The bureaucrats and officials sit at long rows of desks facing reporters at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) Tokyo headquarters. Each politely takes a turn speaking into a microphone — sometimes reading verbatim from the dozens of briefing papers passed out each day.

The mega-briefings, which began last week, brought together under one roof the briefings previously held separately at TEPCO, the nuclear regulators and ministries after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. However, the combined presentation has merely served to drag out the time.

Separately, the government has set up 20 task forces working on not only the unfolding nuclear crisis but also responding to the earthquake and tsunami disasters, which have left 26,000 people dead or missing, and 130,000 people in evacuation centers.

Goshi Hosono, an adviser to the prime minister, initiated the joint news conferences at TEPCO, hoping to better send a unified message to the people of Japan and the international community.

“We have not been mistaken in our response to the crisis, but our public relations effort has been lacking,” he told reporters.

Sometimes the information reads like several long lists. Background and context are rarely offered, such as possible health effects.

Even the conduct of reporters reflects Japanese reverence for cooperation and respect. The journalists patiently endure the long news conferences, filled with detail, but scarce on poignancy. A defiant question comes up maybe once during the entire four-hour session.

Meanwhile, levels of radioactive substances have jumped in the Pacific seabed near the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, TEPCO said.

Seabed samples collected about 15km from the plant contained 1,400 becquerels of radioactive caesium-137 per kilogram, it said.

The level is more than 600 times higher than a maximum 2.3 becquerels per kilogram detected in the past off Fukushima Prefecture.

Samples taken at a spot 20km away from the plant also showed similarly high radiation levels.

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