Diary From Japan: Ongoing Failure to Build Institutional Trust Takes a Heavy Toll in Crisis

This is the worst week I’ve ever spent in Tokyo. That goes for me and about 125 million other people.

I’d planned to be here and had meetings set up for a long time, and I was already in Bangkok about to come here when the earthquake hit. The people I had meetings with in Tokyo let me know they were ready, willing and able to meet, despite the earthquake. I was already in Asia, so rather than return to the U.S., I came to Tokyo as planned last weekend. For readers who don’t know much about me, I lived in Japan for a few years in the late ‘80s and have been here countless times on business trips. However, the past six days since my arrival are an entirely new experience for me. 

By now, you’ve all read reports of the 9.0 earthquake, seen video footage of the tsunami wave that reached as high as 60 feet and wiped out entire villages, and you can’t help hearing about the danger posed by tsunami damage to four nuclear reactors at a Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) plant.  Aside from growing levels of radiation near the plant, one of the biggest dangers here is a communications problem. It started with TEPCO under-stating the problems with the reactors to the Japanese government, which then repeated what TEPCO said and (unknowingly, I believe) under-stated the dangers to the Japanese public. The public has no trust in TEPCO anyway – the company has been caught in lies to the public before on numerous occasions, including safety reports that were falsified for years and forced the resignation of the company’s chairman and president. Since the government has a long history of inaction against the company’s wrong-doing in the past, there is also a low level of trust in the government.  A Bloomberg article today says, “Nuclear engineers and academics who have worked in Japan’s atomic power industry spoke in interviews of a history of accidents, faked reports and inaction by a succession of Liberal Democratic Party governments that ran Japan for nearly all of the postwar period.”

I can’t help thinking about the role that consistently good, honest communication plays in creating trust in institutions. Too many Japanese government institutions have ignored this basic principal of public relations, and the people of Japan are paying a high price for that now.

About 400,000 people who live near the plants have been evacuated. First we were told this was a precaution. Now we are told this is a necessary health measure. The “danger area” was defined by the Japanese government as within 20 km of the plant (about 12 ½ miles). However, the American government now defines the danger area as within 50 miles of the plant, based on its data collection flights over the area.  This also causes one to speculate: are the Japanese authorities still trying to downplay the danger, or is the American government’s calculation unnecessarily conservative and just feeding fear and anxiety? The American media’s headlines are alarmist: “Frantic Repairs Go On at Plant as Japan Raises Severity of Crisis,” writes the New York Times today. This sells papers, but also helps increase the stress levels.

Because the power companies and government feared the nuclear reactor shut-downs would cause a severe power outage, planned blackouts began early this week in and around Tokyo for several hours at a time, rolling from one area to another, to cut usage. This has never been done before in Japan. The plans for these electrical power outages were not communicated well by the power company. Nobody was sure when or where power would be cut, and commuters feared being stranded again as they were a week ago in Tokyo when trains stopped running after the earthquake. Some of the Tokyo subways and trains are running slowly due to cancelled trains and/or reduced service, both of which are unpredictable. (Anyone who has been to Japan knows that this is truly extraordinary, since trains generally run on time within seconds here.)

Yesterday I took a train during the evening rush hour that was packed tighter than I’ve ever seen any subway train, either here or in New York: I could feel the wallet of the person next to me digging into my side. At each station we came to, there was a sea of people on the platforms waiting to get onto a train.

There is no lack of cooperation or effort by the public in saving power: many companies sent people home early yesterday to save electricity, and a lot of workers have been told to work from home. Lights have been dimmed in buildings and public places, escalators have been shut off and thermostats turned down.

Fear of gasoline shortages has actually helped create shortages. I heard that the line to buy gas was a half-mile long at some gas stations and others had run out of gas and were closed.  Gas rationing had to be instituted, and the government announced it has ordered oil companies to release their reserves in order to relieve shortages.

Despite pleas by the prime minister for calm, food, water and batteries have disappeared from the supermarket shelves here in Tokyo. People fear another big quake in addition to the nuclear crisis, so they’re hoarding food, bottled water and batteries against the possibility of another natural disaster or a man-made nuclear disaster. A business colleague said he was going from one 7-11 shop to another looking for bread, rice, milk and other staples because his wife said she couldn’t buy any of these items at stores in their neighborhood.

A couple of days ago I heard the local governor in the area hit hardest by the tsunami being interviewed by NHK, the public television network. He said the biggest problem after the lack of gasoline is inconsistent or vague communications from the government and electric company spokespeople about the dangers from a nuclear plant explosion. People just want to know what’s going on. Even if what the government is telling them is the truth, the government doesn’t have enough credibility to get people to believe it.  As a result, there are all kinds of rumors floating around about the danger posed by the reactors.

There is no violence or looting. Despite these extraordinary circumstances, people have remained calm (at least on the surface), lined up politely at the grocery store cash registers and in gas station lines, and waited in orderly queues for taxis. One sees the typical Japanese dedication to work and company everywhere: I heard about people walking for four hours on Friday after the earthquake to get home from work, and then coming on foot or by bicycle to get back to work again on Monday. The prime minister has asked for cooperation and patience, and that’s a perfect description of the behavior displayed by the Japanese people.

Geological experts have predicted continual aftershocks that could go on for months or even years. I’ve lost count of the small earthquakes I’ve felt.  I’ve experienced four or five fairly large ones.  According to scientists, there’s a high possibility of another very large earthquake occurring before the end of this week, but that possibility diminishes as time passes. And the end of the week is just about here.

I’m going home tomorrow, luckily for me, but people here will continue to live with the stress of the nuclear crisis and the sorrow about the tremendous loss of life for a long time to come.

Lucy Siegel

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8 Responses to “Diary From Japan: Ongoing Failure to Build Institutional Trust Takes a Heavy Toll in Crisis”

  1. Tricia Mumby Says:

    WOW Lucy! Stay Safe!

  2. Carol Blades Says:

    Lucy, I’m reading your blog with my heart in my mouth! Please, please post when you’re home again safe…and thank you for these very personal, street-level accounts of the turmoil. The physical devastation and social dislocation throughout Japan makes me weep. Get home safe. Much love…

  3. Theresa Boyce Says:

    Lucy, thank you for taking time to post such a thoughtful and insightful review of this week. I’ve been baffled by the headlines here, and feel I finally have an inside look at what is happening there. That the disaster is made even more difficult by a lack of credible communication is heart wrenching. I am proud and impressed though at the fortitude of the Japanese people.

  4. Bridge Global Strategies Says:

    Thanks to all of you for your comments. I arrived home last night. The airport in Tokyo was unbelievably crowded. I went early to the airport because I anticipated this, and it’s a good thing I did: it took about 45 minutes just to get to the front of the security screening line, and another 30 minutes to get through the immigration check. The flight was booked solid – I didn’t see any empty seats.

    Now that I’m home, one thing I’d like to focus attention on is the close proximity of the aging Indian Point nuclear plant to New York City. New Yorkers need to support Governor Cuomo, who wants to see the plant shut down, and contact their representatives to Congress and Senators Schumer and Gillibrand about shutting down this old plant.

  5. Tiffany Says:


    It completely slipped my mind that you were visiting Japan. I’m glad you arrived home safe and sound. Thank you for sharing your on the ground insights.


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  8. Japan in Crisis | CEO Trust Says:

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