Naoto Kan, the Prime Minister of Japan, was furious. “What’s going on?” he burst out at Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) officials in front of journalists when he learned of new explosions at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant not from TEPCO but from television.
In the aftermath of a massive 9.0 earthquake, a devastating tsunami and a doomed nuclear power plant, the TEPCO news releases have been vague, opaque and decidedly optimistic. In the words of the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, who is Japanese: “I am asking the Japanese counterparts to further strengthen, to facilitate, communication.”
The frustration with Japanese communication is something people who do business there know well. Japanese hardly ever talk straight, certainly when it comes to conflict or unpleasant situations. The euphemisms used in this situation are appalling. TEPCO referred to an incident as being “under investigation” because “a big sound and white smoke” were recorded at the facility. They couldn’t call it what it was: an explosion.
And not dealing with unpleasantness wasn’t limited to words but to images as well. NHK, the Japanese national television broadcaster, was showing old footage of an intact nuclear plant while other news organizations clearly showed smoke billowing from one of the reactors where the entire encasing of the reactor blew up.
The total sum of the communication effort is a disaster in itself: evasive news conferences, uninformative briefings, conflicting reports, ambiguous language (which led foreign press to conclude the facility was abandoned at one stage) and refusal to confirm basic facts.
Let’s hope that out of this crisis will come better Japanese communication. Given the stress the Japanese population is under they deserve strong leadership and straight talk.