Friday, 3 June 2011

Changing Japan

Many people expected the events of March 11th and the subsequent mismanagement and deception by the government and TEPCO to provoke a revolution of sorts; a backlash from a long-suffering public against the corruption and incompetence of the ruling politicians and bureaucrats.

So far there is no sign of this happening.

A documentary on national TV exposing inaccurate calculations over many years by politicians and the bureaucracy over the official figures for the relative costs of nuclear and renewable energy which showed a far greater benefit for nuclear power than actually exists,  provoked little reaction. The Japanese media do not have a particularly good record of investigative journalism, but if nobody reacts to what you write or broadcast, why risk your career to expose the facts?

Protests at the mishandling of the aftermath of the tsunami at the Fukushima reactor have faded away. TEPCO is still in business with taxpayers' support.

Nobody wants to rock the boat, but in avoiding rocking it, it seems to have escaped most people's notice that it is slowly sinking.

Even with an enormous stimulus to action such as the recent disasters Japan can't change.

Or can it?

The reaction by ordinary people and businesses has been remarkable. The speed of the rebuilding efforts astounding. The flexible responses to the shortage of electricity exemplary - without any fuss, factories and offices have shifted the working week and now take days off on weekdays.

And in a quieter, less attention-grabbing way than the events at Fukushima, major changes are taking place in working practises. From highly-relaxed dress codes (to reduce the need for air-conditioning) to home working and shorter working days, the crisis has pushed organisations into a very different way of working.

Very nice for the hard-working salaried employees , but does it make any difference to the big picture? Surely this can't have any effect on the underlying problems of poor government? Consider for a moment though, that one of the reasons put forward for Japan's incredibly low voting rate in elections is that people don't have time to listen to politicians and choose the best candidate. If people have a little more time to think about the current state of affairs and a little more time to listen to and influence politicians, perhaps these changes will have unexpected knock-on effects. My Japanese friends believe that there are good politicians in both parties - the challenge is to break free of the current smothering political institutions (official and unofficial) and create a credible opposition (third?) party.

Maybe all the changes in working conditions will be reversed in the autumn, and people will go back to the same narrow environment they were constrained to pre-crisis, but maybe this brief pause and opportunity for reflection will be enough to provoke the changes needed to move Japan in a better direction...

Monday, 14 March 2011

Effect of the Economy

There is a lot of pessimism about the economy, but there may be a positive side to the disaster.

If the nuclear plant situation doesn't escalate, the sense of purpose and investment in re-building may have a positive effect in the slightly longer term. The contribution of the Tohoku area to GDP is only 1%. The major negative impact is from power cuts, but the Japanese are very good at matching consumption to supply.

Disaster Management

The events of the last four days have put an enormous strain on the government of Japan.

Politicians and TEPCO managers are struggling to find a balance between preventing panic and providing necessary information to the public at the same time as managing the multiple crises facing the country. They are hampered by a lack of credibility stemming from decades of misinformation and by a tendency to hide the truth rather than release the information necessary to allow the public to make informed decisions.

Looking beyond this unfortunate incompetence, however, we should remind ourselves that, in the face of a natural disaster of terrifying proportions, the social fabric is holding together and many brave, committed people are working to repair the damage in all areas.

Whether or not it was wise to build a nuclear power plant on a fault line in an area exposed to tsunami is a question for the generation of politicians and managers who took that particular gamble (continuing to operate it was, of course, a more recent decision), there is little the current team can do other than fight to bring the situation under control.

This morning's news that the Fukushima Daiichi plant No.2 reactor compression chamber is probably damaged following an explosion follows the news yesterday that the cooling water in the reactor had been allowed to run down, exposing the rods, due to human error. Poor management again compounding a serious situation.

The Japanese government has finally asked for outside help. Hopefully the combined efforts of experts from around the world can bring the situation under control.