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How Bad Communication Is Undermining Japan's Crisis Response

Author: David S. Abraham, International Affairs Fellow in Japan, Sponsored by Hitachi, Ltd. 2010-2011
March 16, 2011


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.

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David S. Abraham discusses his decision to leave Japan, based in part on the lack of reliable information available since the earthquake.