Post-quake nuclear bungling in context, seawater-gate edition

This week, Japan’s political news was dominated by a political fight between the LDP and DPJ over whether Prime Minister Kan, the day after the March 11 earthquake, ordered Tepco to stop flooding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant with seawater. Something shocking happened that poured cold water on that debate, however. The head of the facility admitted that regardless of orders from corporate headquarters to stop (apparently relaying the PM’s wishes), he continued the flooding operations because it was the right thing to do.

In many ways this conflict is a tempest in a teapot, at best a distraction from dealing with the nuclear accident and post-quake situation right now. But it does offer us a window, however slight, into how information has flowed (or not) among stakeholders and the public.

The Nikkei has an interesting lowdown on the farcical sequence of events:

The controversy began with a document issued Saturday by the government’s joint task force with Tepco, purporting to tell the “facts” of how seawater was injected into the No. 1 reactor March 12, the day after a tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Tepco began pumping ocean water into the hot reactor at 7:04 p.m. without informing the government, according to the document. A company employee at the Prime Minister’s Office later telephoned the power plant and the injections stopped at 7:25, only to restart 55 minutes later, the report stated.

A different picture emerged Thursday.

At the time the pumping began, officials at company headquarters had decided there was next to no chance that the seawater would cause the fuel inside to go critical again, Tepco Vice President Sakae Muto told a news conference.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan had asked about that possibility in discussions with Nuclear Safety Commission Chairman Haruki Madarame and other advisers.

But what headquarters officials heard from the employee stationed at the Prime Minister’s Office was that the “atmosphere” there was that the cooling operation could not go ahead without the prime minister’s approval, according to Muto.

In a video conference with plant manager Masao Yoshida, Tepco officials decided to halt the seawater injections. But Yoshida disregarded that order, and the pumping continued. Although final authority did rest with the plant manager, he never reported his actions to headquarters. Head office officials, for their part, never confirmed with Yoshida that the order had been carried out.

At that stage in the crisis, with reactor coolant going up in steam and the fuel rods melting, every second counted. The plant’s emergency manual prescribes seawater injections in such a situation. Regardless of the “atmosphere” at the Prime Minister’s Office, turning off the pumps would have been the wrong decision, based on the conditions at the plant.

Asked why he decided to reveal that the seawater injections continued nonstop, Yoshida said he “thought it over again carefully after it became a controversy in the newspapers and the Diet.”


Right off the bat, I want to say that getting the “real” situation is basically impossible for the general public, and that’s kind of the point of this post. But assuming this report is basically true, it seems clear to me that this is definitely not a case of Tepco or the government hiding information, per se. Mr. Yoshida (who was apparently quoted indirectly through a Tepco spokesperson) was the only one hiding anything, for reasons he must think make sense, even if they deprive outside observers of an accurate picture of the situation.

Get a load of Tepco headquarters – they never confirmed whether he had actually stopped the water? I guess Yoshida just pretended to “restart” the operation when they said it was OK an hour later?

I have read so many articles saying that “Japan” has not been forthcoming with information about the nuclear accident, but I find that hard to believe. Information has been released by the truckload. The entire scandal got started when Tepco released a detailed breakdown of what happened. But even when important people have the best of intentions and submit a report in good faith, there’s no guarantee they will have all the facts.

The Kan government has recently announced an independent commission to study the accident, and the IAEA has its own people on the ground investigating. Openness isn’t the problem here. The problem is how difficult it is for outsiders to get a clear picture of a rapidly unfolding situation, even when the people in charge are trying to be forthcoming.

Again it’s hard to really feel like I have a sound basis to comment, but from my limited vantage point this incident makes a lot of people look bad, most of all the LDP who so quickly leaped on a potentially damaging decision by the prime minister for political gain, only to learn their entire premise was flawed. No one stopped the seawater because, thankfully enough, someone at Tepco had a cool enough head to not listen to superiors who were more worried about reading the Prime Minister’s “mood” than how to control the reactor.

Yoshida might be punished by Tepco for not reporting his actions, but I think he deserves a lot of credit for taking the necessary action. It also bears mentioning that his actions fly in the face of the common stereotype of Japanese deference to power.

Ten things you may not have known about Japan’s newest and, um, peachiest airline

  1. Its name is Peach. Seriously.
  2. It is a joint venture between All Nippon Airways and First Eastern Investment Group, a Hong Kong private equity firm.
  3. Its livery designers apparently got their inspiration from the Barbie Jet.
  4. “Peach” allegedly stands for Pan-Asian, Energetic, Affordable, Cute & Cool and Happy.
  5. As many native English speakers instantly noticed, “Peach” is an anagram for “cheap.”
  6. Peach claims to be Japan’s first low-cost carrier. Obviously, this is a blatant lie since Skymark and Air Do both preceded them and are both still flying.
  7. They will be based at Kansai Airport in Osaka, where only the cheap survive.
  8. Peach’s corporate parent, A&F Aviation, was recruiting operations personnel on LinkedIn’s job board a few months ago and didn’t seem to care that much about language ability. Their staff roster must look pretty interesting by now.
  9. Peach is not the first fruit-themed airline. There is an airline in South Africa called Mango, and the US has both Berry and Lime. That said, Peach is probably the fruitiest of them all.
  10. Peach is so cheap that they didn’t even have chairs at their first presser.

As an aviation geek, I am morbidly fascinated…

Nishioka Calls on Kan to Resign, Many Follow

On May 19, the Yomiuri Shimbun evening edition ran an open letter by House of Councillors President  Nishioka Takeo in which he called upon Prime Minister Kan Naoto to resign due to his handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. This would be significant enough if Nishioka were a member of the opposition, but he belongs to the same DPJ as Kan himself. The letter, as well as the admission that Kan, based on unfounded concerns that the injection of seawater could induce re-criticality in the reactor, encouraged TEPCO to halt the injection of seawater based coolant into the plant, has spurred a movement towards calling a  no-confidence vote, with support from the Ozawa faction of Kan’s own DPJ, as well as from the opposition LDP. Among the harsh critics are LDP leader Tanigaki Sadakazu, who, based on the newly released information, described the decision to suspend the injection of seawater at such a critical stage as a “man-made disaster”.

Although the English Yomiuri website summarizes the key points of Nishioka’s letter in the same article I linked to above, they did not originally post the entire text or even publish it in the English print edition, although they did promise that “The English translation of Nishioka’s open letter to Kan will be carried on The Daily Yomiuri’s Commentary page on Tuesday.” Well, Tuesday has passed and you can now read the entire letter in English, at Yomiuri or below here.

In the annoyingly typical fashion of the Japanese newspaper industry, they haven’t even published the original Japanese text of the full letter online! Luckily it can be easily found on a number of Japanese blogs, and here I will give my own quick and dirty translation.

To Prime Minister Naoto Kan:

I am sure the weight of the world is on your shoulders, with duties that require your attention day and night. I thank you for your hard work.

As a representative of one of the supreme organizations in the nation’s three independent branches of authority, I would like to venture to express my candid opinion in this open letter. Prime Minister Kan, you should immediately resign from your post.

I think many people share my present thoughts about you: among them survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake, residents forced to evacuate their homes due to the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, members of the general public and Diet members from both opposition and ruling parties.

I also believe that heads of local governments and assembly members distrust and are concerned about you.

There is a reason why, despite this situation, hardly any voices have called, “Prime Minister Kan, you should resign.” It is generally believed it would be unthinkable to change the supreme leader of the nation at a time when serious problems are occurring that are not limited to national politics, and when measures are under way to deal with the situation.

However, you have continued to abandon your duties as prime minister since the March 11 disaster took place.

This is in itself unthinkable.

Given that you also abandoned your duties as prime minister last year, when a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japan Coast Guard ships off the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, I believe you are not aware of your duties as prime minister concerning state affairs.

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Why the Hague Convention is not such a big deal (but Japan ought to sign anyway)

Curzon’s post on the Savoie divorce and child abduction case spawned the longest comment thread in our blog’s history, and the case itself brought a lot of international media attention to the child abduction problem in Japan, which was for a long time known only to a growing group of estranged parents.

One result of all the attention is that Japan is considering signing up to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which provides a legal mechanism for countries to cooperate when children are taken across borders in violation of legal custody arrangements. This is a good and reasonable thing for Japan to do—the treaty is already in force in most Western countries, and would not only give effect to foreign custody orders in Japan, but would also help to protect Japanese parents from losing access to their children if a partner suddenly takes a child out of Japan.

That said, international law is consensually adopted by a variety of countries, and tends to have holes wide enough to sail a ship through. Debito notes that “intimations have been made that Japan will sign but will then create domestic laws and other loopholes so it doesn’t have to follow it.” Actually, Japan doesn’t need to—there are enormous loopholes in the text of the treaty itself. Take a look at this section:

Article 13

Notwithstanding the provisions of the preceding Article, the judicial or administrative authority of the requested State is not bound to order the return of the child if the person, institution or other body which opposes its return establishes that –
a) the person, institution or other body having the care of the person of the child was not actually exercising the custody rights at the time of removal or retention, or had consented to or subsequently acquiesced in the removal or retention; or
b) there is a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation.

The judicial or administrative authority may also refuse to order the return of the child if it finds that the child objects to being returned and has attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of its views.

In considering the circumstances referred to in this Article, the judicial and administrative authorities shall take into account the information relating to the social background of the child provided by the Central Authority or other competent authority of the child’s habitual residence.

Now, what is the definition of an “intolerable situation?” Or, for that matter, even the more specific term “physical or psychological harm?” The treaty does not say. So even if there is a binding custody order in another country, Japan’s authority (probably the justice ministry, perhaps the courts) could ignore it upon finding that any kind of “intolerable situation” would exist on the other side of the water, and Japan would still be fully compliant with its treaty obligations.

What is good about the Hague Convention is that it provides a mechanism for this review to take place. Once Japan signs up, its courts could not simply stonewall a foreign parent by refusing to consider their custody rights overseas. However, Japan would still maintain the power to keep kids from “going home” in egregious situations such as the Savoie case. So why not sign up?

Learning Japanese in Florida in three years, and why it could be even faster

I just came back from a Golden Week vacation in South Florida, which is the closest thing to a “hometown” that I have. I spent my teenage years in Broward County, just north of Miami, and skipped town after high school to go to an upstate university. My parents moved out of town not too long after that, so now my time in school there is my only connection to the area.

On the long flight to Atlanta I finished watching Season 4 of The Wire (a show which comes up often in comment threads here). Season 4 focuses on a Baltimore middle school and examines the dysfunctional aspects of public education which leave many kids clueless and drive many other kids into a life of crime or destitution. One of the threads in its plot involves an ex-cop and a group of Johns Hopkins researchers who move a group of “troubled” kids out of regular classes and into a special classroom where they get more attention, which has its most noticeable effect on the regular classes—which suddenly become pretty orderly and conducive to learning, rather than total madhouses.

This was timely because I had just made arrangements to visit Hallandale High School, where I spent my sophomore and senior years of high school (before and after my year in Osaka). Hallandale is a bog-standard public high school, in the middle of what counts as “the ghetto” in Florida, and which is mainly notable for having a well-equipped TV studio and a large foreign language program. It is one of only a handful of Florida high schools which offer Japanese classes—and four full years’ worth of Japanese at that.

In my day, over a decade ago, Japanese was taught by a Chiba-native art teacher who was much more interested in art than in language teaching. Although there were four separate levels, all four levels were taught at the same time in the same classroom, which was primarily an art classroom. There was not enough demand to actually have separate class blocks for separate levels. When I returned from Osaka, I enrolled in Japanese IV, where my only classmate was an exchange student from Tokyo, and our main duty was to tutor the lower-level kids in basic vocabulary and writing kana. Japanese was often described as the most difficult class in the entire school: part of this obviously had to do with the difficulty of the language itself, but the relative lack of teacher guidance (since she was dealing with four levels at once) and the cruddy textbooks and materials didn’t help either.

Given this history, I was a bit surprised to discover that there are now three completely separate Japanese classes at Hallandale, that Japanese IV is now an Advanced Placement class (meaning that students can take an exam at the end to claim university credits), and that while our teacher is still teaching art, all of her language teaching responsibilities have been taken over by a newly-hired language teacher who is half-Japanese and splits her time between teaching Japanese and English.

My wife and I spoke to the first two classes, comprised of first and second-year students. At the start of each class, we introduced ourselves in Japanese, and I then asked the kids to tell me what we had just said. They got tiny bits and pieces, like our names, but that was about it. Then they took turns struggling to introduce themselves in Japanese using simple fill-in-the-blank sentences (“namae wa ____ desu. shumi wa ____ desu.“) and then did some exercises in writing hiragana where they were struggling to recall the characters. Nobody knew how to assemble a basic sentence on their own. Keep in mind that this was during Golden Week, so the American school year was almost over.

The kids in these classes were quite varied in their backgrounds and motivations. There were more than a few self-proclaimed otaku who wanted to learn Japanese because of their interest in anime and video games. There were a few kids who chose Japanese because they were interested in street racing and liked the movie Tokyo Drift (no accounting for taste, I guess). One was pursuing a career as a graphic artist and wanted to live in Japan “because they are the leaders in graphic arts.” Another had grown up as an Air Force brat in Okinawa and wanted to learn more about the side of Japan he had missed as a child.

Both classes were full of energy but highly disorganized. As each kid got up to introduce themselves in Japanese, their peers wasted no time in heckling their mistakes, putting words in their mouth and generally vying for the class’s attention. The teacher could only maintain the flow of the class by shouting over the shouts of the kids. My wife, whose only familiarity with American high schools came from watching 90210, was both fascinated and horrified by the scene.

We then went down the hallway to the third-year section, which also contained a handful of fourth-year students studying for the AP exam. The students were silent as soon as the teacher called for order, and again my wife and I did our introductions. This time, the kids understood everything. They introduced themselves relatively flawlessly, and were then asked to write down a list of questions to ask us in Japanese. Their questions were grammatically well-constructed even though they were working “on the fly” in the middle of class, and when we answered them with descriptions of our working environments, our lifestyle in Tokyo and our traveling experiences, the students still understood nearly everything.

We were both amazed. Here was a room of kids who had never been to Japan, who were only a year or two ahead of the kids who were absolutely hopeless in Japanese, and yet they spoke Japanese nearly as well as I spoke it after a year in a Japanese high school.

What happened?

When we mentioned this to the teacher, she explained that two years of a foreign language are now required in order to graduate from Hallandale High. The result of this requirement is that first and second-year foreign language classes are filled with kids who have no particular want or need for a foreign language. Many don’t pay attention, and this distracts the other kids so much that they can’t effectively learn—even the otaku among those kids weren’t even minimally proficient. The third and fourth-year classes don’t have this problem; the only kids in them are the kids who really want to learn Japanese, and they study and practice it with each other like crazy.

Thinking back, this was also the case in my high school in Osaka. Everyone had to take lots of English classes in order to graduate, but almost none of them were really interested, and the few kids who actually were interested had no outlet for their energy. I have always rolled my eyes at the idea that Japanese people will speak better English if they just start earlier—not a chance. Japanese people speak better English when they want to, and when they are surrounded by people who want to. As long as English is simply treated as a universal requirement, everyone will study it and nobody will really learn it.