TOKYO – Japanese officials under public pressure to streamline information flows about the crisis at a radiation-spewing nuclear plant came up with a solution: They merged four separate daily briefings into one.
The result is a marathon of highly technical information delivered in dull and excruciating detail that regularly drags on for four hours or more, to the dismay of the patiently long-suffering reporters.
To some, this dragged-out daily rundown has become another symbol of Japan's cultural passion for process — the very opposite of the decisive, topdown leadership that some experts say is desperately needed during the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
"What is missing is one strong balanced leadership to align everything toward one goal," said Shuri Fukunaga, managing director of Burson-Marsteller in Tokyo, who consults companies and governments about crisis communications.
Fukunaga says Japan is skilled at teamwork, which is good under normal times. But it's a dismal failure at having a clear leader take control — a vital necessity during a crisis.
"The leaders tend to be more of a figurehead when what you need is someone to roll up your sleeves and jump in," she said.
Certainly, there has been little sign of sleeve-rolling at the nightly nuclear briefings for the press. The bureaucrats and officials sit at long rows of desks facing reporters at the Tokyo headquarters of the utility that operates the plant. Each politely takes a turn speaking into a microphone — sometimes reading verbatim from the dozens of briefing papers passed out each day.
The mega-briefings, which began last week, brought together under one roof the briefings previously held separately at Tokyo Electric Power Co., the nuclear regulators and ministries after the March 11 earthquake set off a massive tsunami that sent Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in northeastern Japan to the verge of a partial meltdown.
But the combined presentation has merely served to drag out the time.
Japan Inc. is famous for its attention-to-detail efficiency and just-in-time production methods. But experts on Japanese corporate and government culture count neither clearly defined leadership or topdown decision-making among this nation's signature strengths.
Separately, the government has set up 20 task forces working on not only the unfolding nuclear crisis but also responding to the earthquake and tsunami disasters, which have left 26,000 people dead or missing, and 130,000 people in evacuation centers.
Goshi Hosono, an adviser to the prime minister, initiated the joint news conferences at TEPCO, hoping to better send a unified message to the people of Japan and the international community.
"We have not been mistaken in our response to the crisis," he told reporters. "But our public relations effort has been lacking."
Hosono, widely viewed as a future candidate for prime minister, isn't exactly taking control, playing more the role of a friendly host.
Sometimes the information reads like several long lists. Background and context are rarely offered, such as possible health effects.
Every day, reporters stand in line for about a dozen handouts, packed with details and numbers, including lists of radioactive isotopes sometimes disturbingly over legal limits.
They ask questions — radiation exposure levels at the region's schools, compensation TEPCO is working on for the residents, how much reactor core damage is suspected.
But even the conduct of reporters reflects Japanese reverence for cooperation and respect. The journalists patiently endure the long news conferences, filled with detail but scarce on poignancy. A defiant question comes up maybe once during the entire four hours.
"We can say we are not covering up information," Matsumoto said in reply to a question from a freelance reporter about transparency and why the news conferences meandered.
After an awkward moment, the news conference went back to its usual excruciatingly long — but decidedly orderly — agenda.
Yuri Kageyama can be reached at http://twitter.com/yurikageyama