Politicians Must Secure People’s Safety

A lack of responsibility is to blame for the government’s repeated bungling of diplomatic issues and its muddled response to the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. Now the same lack of responsibility threatens to have a dire effect on the international community, warns Kōno Yōhei.

A lack of responsibility is to blame for the government’s repeated bungling of diplomatic issues and its muddled response to the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. Now the same lack of responsibility threatens to have a dire effect on the international community, warns Kōno Yōhei.

The current problems for the ruling party in Japan are not limited to its reluctance to reach a compromise with the opposition in the Diet. Another serious issue is the government’s lack of any clear sense of responsibility.

A good example of this was the palaver over extending the duration of the current Diet session. Initially, the secretaries general of the various parties agreed to an extension of 50 days. But this failed to get the nod from Prime Minister Kan, who insisted on 70 days. The party leaders capitulated to this demand just 24 hours after their original agreement, and 70 days it was. This is no way to conduct negotiations between political parties. Once the secretaries general have come to an arrangement, it is their responsibility to whip through an approval of that decision within their parties—come what may. It is true that similar cases of broken promises occasionally occurred even during the long period of two-party domination by the LDP and the Socialists that prevailed until the early 1990s (the so-called 1955 system), but in these cases the people responsible for reneging on agreements were always prompt to resign. Nowadays, no one even bothers to do that.

Political Irresponsibility Has Grave Consequences

The same thing can be said about meetings of the 2-plus-2 US-Japan Security Consultative Committee to discuss the possible relocation of a US Marine Corps air station currently based at Futenma, Okinawa. Most of the negotiation problems stem from the fact that the Japanese minister for foreign affairs and defense minister reached an agreement with their American counterparts without first consulting the people of Okinawa. As a result, Japan found itself in the embarrassing situation of being unable to honor an international agreement. In the normal run of things, the government ought to have consulted the people of Okinawa to agree on priorities and objectives before it opened negotiations with the Americans. The approach it adopted instead has only aggravated differences and made the situation worse, in Japan and internationally.

Kōno YōheiIrresponsibility has also been the hallmark of the government’s response to the nuclear power crisis in Fukushima. In particular, the government’s handling of international public relations involved a succession of embarrassing blunders. When Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency gave a presentation to the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna, for example, the documents they handed out were apparently all in Japanese. And in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, no interpreting was provided at press conferences given by Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio and other important government officials. This was hardly an arrangement designed to make things easy for the international press. If this is the best we can do, we cannot expect to receive much understanding for Japan’s position from the international community.

At the moment, the head of the IAEA happens to be Japanese. I imagine that Director General Amano Yukiya must find himself in an extremely difficult spot indeed. He must have hoped, upon assuming office, that he would be bolstered by the dependable performance of the Japanese nuclear industry. Instead, he has had to deal with one of the worst catastrophes in the history of nuclear power. Meanwhile, I have a hunch that Japan’s nuclear industry officials imagine that Amano’s position at the IAEA will allow them to continue getting away with the sort of bumbling incompetence that has characterized their response to the disaster from day one.

The Responsibility of the LDP

As a first step toward tackling these problems, politicians need to have the humility to apologize to the Japanese people for the course they have followed in promoting nuclear power as a national policy.

The LDP was instrumental in implementing this policy, and the party as a whole needs to accept its share of responsibility— myself included, as former party president. But I am not convinced that we should deny the validity of the decision to invest in nuclear power in the first place. It is important to remember that back when former prime minister Nakasone Yasuhiro and Shōriki Matsutarō (owner of the Yomiuri Shimbun and the first chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission) were pushing nuclear power as a major pillar of the national energy policy, Japan had little alternative, given its almost total lack of other energy resources. Still, these considerations should not blind us to the fact that there were serious problems with some of the nuclear policies endorsed and supported by the LDP during its time in power.

As part of the Central Government Reform in 2001, responsibility for overseeing the safety of Japan’s nuclear power facilities was shifted from the Science and Technology Agency to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. This meant that the same ministry was responsible for developing nuclear power stations and regulating their safety. This was the biggest single blunder to date in Japan’s nuclear power policy. The LDP needs to own up to its mistakes and apologize, and then cooperate to put together a new system to ensure better safety standards in the future.

Since the crisis in Fukushima, a chorus of voices has been clamoring for Japan to shut down its nuclear power industry. But abandoning nuclear power immediately may not be a realistic option. Clearly, national energy policy is a major issue. We need to look again at the whole picture, including nuclear energy. The fundamental question is whether our current level of dependency on nuclear is acceptable or not. The chief responsibility of politicians, after all, is to protect the safety of people’s lives, their families, and society in general, and to strive continually to build a country in which people can live their lives in comfort and security. (Based on an interview conducted on June 29, 2011.)

In This Series
Party Politics in Japan: A Lament
Politicians Must Secure People’s Safety (June 29)
Japan’s Politicians Lack Humility (June 29)

Kōno YōheiKōno Yōhei

Born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1937. After graduating from Waseda University, worked in business before entering politics. Following his first election to the House of Representatives in 1967, he was returned at 14 consecutive elections. Served as Chief Cabinet Secretary and Minister for Foreign Affairs, before becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives(2003–09). Current positions include President of the Japan Association of Athletics Federations and specially appointed professor at Waseda University.