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Fukushima’s Earthquakes Show That Risk Is Inevitable

Beware: This article has a pro-nuclear spin! Preparedness has nothing to do with it, with nuclear you can never expect the expected to happen.

By accepting risk and planning for failure, communities are more likely to survive catastrophes.

March 16, 2022

About the author: Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for homeland security under President Barack Obama, is the faculty chair of the homeland-security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters.

Two hundred feet up in the foothills that surround Aneyoshi, a tiny coastal village in Japan, warnings are engraved into the rocks. Most of the messages come from 19th-century survivors of large tsunamis that terrorized people along the coast. “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” one inscription declares. “Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.”

But more recent residents of coastal Japan did build below that point. Homes at first, but eventually nuclear facilities, which were built where they could be cooled by nearby ocean waters. On March 11, 2011, a massive undersea earthquake occurred east of Oshika Peninsula. The quake, which lasted six minutes and remains the fourth-most powerful ever recorded in the world, triggered tsunami waves that reached up to 130 feet above sea level. The rushing water ultimately led to a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, where a loss of power shut off the cooling system, resulting in hydrogen-gas accumulation. As surprised workers tried to cool the facility manually—using water from fire trucks—a gas buildup led to the expulsion of radioactive material into the atmosphere and groundwater. Part of Fukushima prefecture is still uninhabitable.

After the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, investigators blamed a combination of mechanical failure and operator error. The conventional narrative of Fukushima Daiichi’s demise has been somewhat more forgiving of the people running the plant that day. The earthquake and tsunami could not be blamed on them. The most fundamental error, news stories intimated, was putting a nuclear reactor in a location so obviously vulnerable to natural disaster. Previous generations had literally carved warnings in stone: Never again. Because TEPCO, the plant’s operator, had ignored them and built in a risky spot, tragedy was all but inevitable.

This made a tidy story, except for one thing: The Onagawa nuclear-power plant also sits below the rock warnings, but it withstood the earthquake and tsunami. Onagawa was about 30 miles closer to the epicenter of the earthquake than the Daiichi facility was. It experienced the strongest ground shaking of any of the nuclear facilities in the area—or indeed of any nuclear facility in recorded history. Operated by the Tohoku Electric Power Company, the Onagawa reactor did not melt down. It suffered no serious damage. The differing fates of Fukushima Daiichi and Onagawa cannot be explained by the movement of the Earth, because neither plant heeded the century-old warnings.

Never again is a common refrain after traumatic disasters, but it’s also a hard promise to keep. Memories fade over time. But more important, societies change, and so do their risk calculations. Accepting risk is not itself a form of negligence; Japan needed domestic energy sources to power its economy in the decades after World War II, and nuclear-power plants near the coast became essential to the country’s growth. The problem at Fukushima—unlike at Onagawa—was that its designers and managers did not acknowledge or make provision for the risk they had undertaken, so the plant was unprepared when disaster struck.

This was a dangerous omission. Events that threaten human life and safety do not strike at random, nor are they particularly rare. Indeed, an earthquake off the coast of Fukushima today left millions of people in Japan without power—and put residents on alert once again for potential tsunamis. All modern societies face environmental hazards; rely on complex, and in some cases dangerous, technologies; and link up to global trade and transportation networks that move pathogens as well as people.

Onagawa’s strength was simple: The nuclear plant’s operators understood that failure was possible, perhaps even inevitable, so they committed themselves to failing safely. Like Fukushima Daiichi, Onagawa was located near the coast. But its designers had studied past tsunamis and built at an elevation several meters higher than that of its ill-fated counterpart. Long before the earthquake, Tohoku Electric had also required extensive emergency training and scenario planning, including for a massive tsunami, so Onagawa’s employees were ready to shut it down. Departing from the hierarchical norms of Japanese corporate culture, headquarters had delegated authority to the plant managers to react in the moment. Simply put, Onagawa’s employees had their act together. Fukushima’s owners had done far less to create a safety culture, and during the meltdown required leadership’s approval for every crisis decision. That doesn’t work in real time.

For most of my career, I have studied disasters, managed government responses to them, and advised elected leaders and business executives about how to plan for them. I have come to think that the very word disaster wrongly excuses us from the obligation to plan for failure. The word’s original meaning, from Middle French and Old Italian, comes from the prefix dis-, signifying a negative force, and astro, for star—implying that disruptive events occur only because the stars were aligned against us, not because of anything we did or didn’t do. The word catastrophe,derived from a Greek word meaning “sudden turn,” has a similar connotation: It’s just bad luck, befalling a passive population with no capacity to manage destruction that nobody could have foreseen.

But we should not be surprised by natural catastrophes, viral variants, sneak attacks, or other tragedies. The devil never sleeps, I argue in my forthcoming book. The good news is that the means to minimize the resulting harm from sudden shocks are always the same: making sure the risk is communicated and widely understood; preparing individuals to respond to a range of scenarios; ensuring redundancies in safety systems, so that none becomes the last line of defense; testing those systems; challenging the fallacy that a near miss implies immunity from a future calamity; and making adjustments after past mistakes.

People in my field describe the event precipitating a crisis—an earthquake, a hurricane, the emergence of a new virus—as the “boom,” and we divide time and human activity into two phases: “left of boom” and “right of boom.” The former includes the steps we take to prevent the boom from happening in the first place; the latter is what we do in the moments after, and then the weeks and months following, to minimize the harm. But we would be better prepared if we no longer viewed disasters as a surprise moment in time. A society that studiously prepares to fail safer—that makes preparation for what will happen right of boom—is a stronger one than a society that focuses a majority of its efforts on avoiding the failure itself.

Fukushima Daiichi’s operator, I should note, didn’t do enough of either. After the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many in Japan were deeply apprehensive about using nuclear energy to address the country’s needs. TEPCO, Japan’s leading nuclear-power operator, managed to convince itself that it had essentially eliminated any risk. According to Akihisa Shiozaki, a lawyer who organized an independent investigation of the Fukushima disaster, the country was sold a myth: “the absolute safeness” of nuclear power. A later government report blamed an industry mindset that ignored the possibility that even in a nuclear disaster, preparedness could go far in “limiting the consequential damage.” Instead, local opposition had to be managed as more nuclear reactors were built, which in many cases meant not talking about the potential for a worst-case scenario.

Not planning for the right of boom makes sudden shocks of all kinds—including the extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change—far more deadly than they might otherwise be. In 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. To this day, we still do not know how many people died there. One reason death estimates varied so widely is that most of the deaths were not a direct result of the hurricane itself but downstream consequences of power outages. The losses cascaded: Without electricity, deprivations of water, food, and medicines left people vulnerable. Damage to power infrastructure is a predictable outcome of a hurricane. A faster restoration of the grid—in the absence of preparations that would have made it more resistant to failure in the first place—would have saved many lives.

This logic does not only apply after natural disasters. Before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military had not adapted its battlefield-medicine rules for an age of urban warfare and improvised explosive devices. Existing rules prioritized carrying injured soldiers away from enemy lines to a medic tent or back to base. But those enemy lines were not always clearly defined in America’s post-9/11 conflicts, and many of the wounded bled to death before they could receive proper care. To prevent injuries to American soldiers, the Pentagon made massive investments in armor design and mine-resistant, ambush-protected light tactical vehicles to protect U.S. troops from harm. But those improvements were not enough. Right-of-boom protocols needed to evolve too: So the military began training field soldiers, most of whom were not medics, to use tourniquets right away to save the life of team members wounded in IED attacks. These efforts—which have since spawned a civilian public-awareness campaign called “Stop the Bleed”—were a way to minimize harm even after a life-threatening event had already occurred.

Planning to fail safely is different from trying to eliminate all risk—which is usually impossible. At this point two years into a global pandemic, for example, even stringent lockdowns are unlikely to prevent all transmission of the coronavirus. When the CDC recently decided to use rates of death and hospitalization, rather than overall infection, as its primary metrics for the severity of the problem, the agency implicitly chose to minimize the negative consequences of the virus rather than try to suppress it altogether. Furthermore, attempts to banish one kind of risk may make others worse. After the Fukushima disaster, Germany began phasing out nuclear power altogether—a decision that has left it more dependent on fossil fuel from Russia.

Deliberately accepting some risks, and then being prepared when disaster strikes, will serve human societies better than pretending we can achieve perfect safety. We cannot prevent an earthquake or a tsunami, but we have control over how much death and destruction it causes.

What happened at Fukushima wasn’t just bad fortune; Onagawa didn’t get lucky. Most people outside Japan have never heard of Onagawa because it was ready to fail under the same conditions that proved cataclysmic at Fukushima. And in disaster management, anonymity—not fame—is a sign of success.

March 20, 2022 Posted by | Fuk 2022 | , , | Leave a comment

Fukushima Takes a Turn for the Worse.

January 10, 2022by Robert Hunziker

Tokyo Electric Power Company-TEPCO- has been attempting to decommission three nuclear meltdowns in reactors No. 1 No. 2, and No. 3 for 11 years now. Over time, impossible issues grow and glow, putting one assertion after another into the anti-nuke coffers.

The problems, issues, enormous danger, and ill timing of deconstruction of a nuclear disaster is always unexpectedly complicated by something new. That’s the nature of nuclear meltdowns, aka: China Syndrome debacles.

As of today, TEPCO is suffering some very serious setbacks that have “impossible to deal with” written all over the issues.

Making all matters nuclear even worse, which applies to the current mess at Fukushima’s highly toxic scenario, Gordon Edwards’ following statement becomes more and more embedded in nuclear lore: “It’s impossible to dispose of nuclear waste.” (Gordon Edwards in The Age of Nuclear Waste From Fukushima to Indian Point)

Disposing of nuclear waste is like “running in place” to complete a marathon. There’s no end in sight.

As a quickie aside from the horrendous details of the current TEPCO debacle, news from Europe brings forth the issue of nuclear power emboldened as somehow suitable to help the EU transition to “cleaner power,” as described by EU sources. France supports the crazed nuke proposal but Germany is holding its nose. According to German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke: “Nuclear energy could lead to environmental disasters and large amounts of nuclear waste. (Source: EU Plans to Label Gas and Nuclear Energy ‘Green’ Prompts Row, BBC News, Jan. 2, 2022) Duh!

Minister Lemke nailed it. And, TEPCO is living proof (barely) of the unthinkable becoming thinkable and disastrous for humanity. Of course, meltdowns are never supposed to happen, but they do.

One meltdown is like thousands of industrial accidents in succession over generations of lifetimes. What a mess to leave for children’s children’s children over several generations. They’ll hate you for this!

In Fukushima’s case, regarding three nuclear power plants that melted all-the-way (China Syndrome), TEPCO still does not know how to handle the enormously radioactive nuclear fuel debris, or corium, sizzling hot radioactive lumps of melted fuel rods and container material in No. 1, No 2 and No.3, They’re not even 100% sure where all of the corium is and whether it’s getting into underground water resources. What a disaster that would be… what if it is already… Never mind.

The newest wrinkle at TEPCO involves the continuous flow of water necessary to keep the destroyed reactors’ hot stuff from exposure to air, thus spreading explosively red-hot radioactivity across the countryside. That constant flow of water is an absolute necessity to prevent an explosion of all explosions, likely emptying the streets of Tokyo in a mass of screaming, kicking, and trampling event to “get out of town” ASAP, commonly known as “mass evacuation.”

The cooling water continuously poured over the creakily dilapidated ruins itself turns radioactive, almost instantaneously, and must be processed via an Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) to remove most radioactive materials (???) housed in a 17-meter (56 feet) tall building on the grounds of the disaster zone.

Here’s the new big danger, as it processes radioactive contaminated water, it flushes out “slurry” of highly concentrated radioactive material that has to go somewhere. But where to put it?

How to handle and dispose of the radioactive slurry from the ALPS is almost, and in fact may be, an impossible quagmire. It’s a big one as the storage containers for the tainted slurry quickly degrade because of the high concentration of radioactive slurry. These storage containers of highly radioactive slurry, in turn, have to be constantly replaced as the radioactivity slurry eats away at the containers’ liners.

Radioactive slurry is muddy and resembles a shampoo in appearance, and it contains highly radioactive Strontium readings that reach tens of millions of Becquerel’s per cubic centimeter. Whereas, according to the EPA, 148 Becquerel’s per cubic meter, not centimeter, is the safe level for human exposure. Thus, tens of millions per cubic centimeter is “off the charts” dangerous! Instant death, as one cubic meter equals one million cubic centimeters. Ahem!

Since March 2013, TEPCO has accumulated 3,373 special vessels that hold these highly toxic radioactive slurry concentrations. But, because the integrity of the vessels deteriorates so quickly, the durability of the containers reaches a limit, meaning the vessels will need replacement by mid-2025.

Making matters ever worse, if that is possible, the NRA has actually accused TEPCO of “underestimating the impact issue of the radioactivity on the containers linings,” claiming TEPCO improperly measured the slurry density when conducting dose evaluations. Whereas, the density level is always highest at the bottom, not the top where TEPCO did the evaluations, thus failing to measure and report the most radioactive of the slurry. Not a small error.

As of June 2021, NRA’s own assessment of the containers concluded that 31 radioactive super hot containers had already reached the end of operating life. And, another 56 would need replacement within the next 2 years.

Transferring slurry is a time-consuming highly dangerous horrific job, which exposes yet a second issue of unacceptable risks of radioactive substances released into the air during transfer of slurry. TEPCO expects to open and close the transfers remotely (no surprise there). But, TEPCO, as of January 2, 2022, has not yet revealed acceptable plans for dealing with the necessary transfer of slurry from weakening, almost deteriorated containers, into fresh, new containers. (Source: TEPCO Slow to Respond to Growing Crisis at Fukushima Plant, The Asahi Shimbun, January 2, 2022)

Meanwhile, additional batches of a massive succession of containers that must be transferred to new containers will be reaching the end of shelf life, shortly.

Another nightmarish problem has surfaced for TEPCO. Yes, another one. In the aftermath of the 2011 blowup, TEPCO stored radioactive water in underground spaces below two buildings near reactor No.4. Bags of a mineral known as zeolite were placed to absorb cesium. Twenty-six tons (52,000 lbs.) of bags are still immersed with radiation readings of 4 Sieverts per hour, enough to kill half of all workers in the immediate vicinity within one hour. The bags need to be removed.

TEPCO intends to robotically start removing the highly radioactive bags, starting in 2023, but does not know where the bags should be stored. Where do you store radioactive bags containing enough radioactive power to kill someone within one hour of exposure?

Additionally (there’s more) the amount of radioactive rubble, soil, and felled trees at the plant site totals 480,000 cubic meters, as of 2021. TEPCO is setting up a special incinerator to dispose of this. Where to dispose of the incinerated waste is unknown. This is one more add-on to the horrors of what to do with radioactive material that stays hot for centuries upon centuries. Where to put it?

Where to put it? Which is the bane of the nuclear power industry. For example, America’s nuke plants are full of huge open pools of water containing tons of spent nuclear fuel rods. If exposed to open air, spent fuel rods erupt into a sizzling zirconium fire followed by massive radiation bursts of the most toxic material known to humanity. It can upend an entire countryside and force evacuation of major cities.

According to the widely recognized nuclear expert Paul Blanch: “Continual storage in spent fuel pools is the most unsafe thing you could do.” (see- Nuclear Fuel Buried 108 Feet from the Sea, March 19, 2021)

It’s not just Fukushima that rattles the nerves of people who understand the high-risk game of nuclear power. America is loaded with nuclear power plants with open pools of water that hold highly radioactive spent fuel rods.

What to do with it?

January 13, 2022 Posted by | Fuk 2022 | , , , , | 2 Comments

Legacies of Fukushima.


Kyle Cleveland

Abstract: This special collection of papers reflects the work of contributing authors to the newly released book Legacies of Fukushima: 3.11 in Context (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). The edited volume addresses the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan, taking a multi-dimensional, cross-disciplinary approach to understanding this epic disaster. The book is an intersectional collaboration that is unique in that it incorporates the work of Japan-area scholars, journalists, nuclear experts and Science, Technology and Society (STS) scholars from Japan and abroad, who discuss the trajectory of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in the first decade since its inception. There are 19 authors whose work is included in the book; this special edition of selected papers for The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus evokes that work, and while they do not entirely represent the scope of the material included in the edited volume, these papers delve into issues that any disaster studies scholar or student of the Fukushima nuclear disaster will find compelling.

The 3.11 disasters were an implausible convergence of events, the massive 9.0 earthquake (the largest on historical record in Japan), a tsunami that took nearly 20,000 lives, which put the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant underwater, leading to 3 nuclear reactors in meltdown, the most convoluted nuclear disaster in history. When the tsunami pushed ashore onto the coast less than an hour after the earthquake, it swamped the Daiichi plant, inundating the reactors and taking out the electrical backup generators, causing a total station blackout. With no power to run instrumentation or take remedial actions, the Daiichi nuclear power plant descended into chaos. The Fukushima crisis was the first multi-reactor meltdown and the only total station blackout (the only time this had happened in the history of nuclear energy). This “beyond-design-basis” event was unprecedented in the history of nuclear energy, and it was considered so unlikely that it left nuclear authorities wholly unprepared to deal with the crisis as it cascaded out of control. TEPCO (the utility that ran the doomed plant) has since maintained that they should not be held legally accountable because these conjoined events, taken together, were the ultimate “Black Swan” disaster. As Charles Casto, a former plant manager and high-ranking administrator in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who was the chief liaison for the U.S. government during the crisis and who worked closely with the operational staff at the Daiichi plant put it: it was comparable to having the San Francisco earthquake, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the Katrina hurricane all happening on the same day.1

Yet as unlikely as they would seem to be, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami were hardly unprecedented. Japan is roiled by earthquakes constantly, and while the magnitude of the 3.11 quake was unique, in the months that preceded and followed this event there were clusters of smaller quakes, many in the 7 magnitude (Richter Scale) range, that would be significant outside the context of the penultimate quake of 3.11. And the Sanriku coast in Northeastern Japan has been inundated by tsunami often enough that oral tradition among inhabitants of coastline communities has produced a cautionary mindset in which tsunami have always loomed large in the collective imagination. Under the harsh scrutiny of nuclear critics, scholars, journalists, and industry and governmental officials who were by necessity compelled to address its consequences, a more nuanced and critical perspective eventually took hold and Fukushima, much like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and other nuclear disasters, seems now in retrospect to be all too predictable, and, avoidable.2

Scandals now buzz around Fukushima like parasites on a dead thing, and a withering indictment of nuclear energy in Japan prevails. Corporate collusion, precursors ignored, lessons unlearned, the failure of regulatory oversight, and a lack of accountability have become commonplace in discussions of the nuclear enterprise in Japan. This is not only a scathing indictment of the hubris that brought Japan to this point in the first place, but it reveals a lack of foresight and analytical rigor that sustained the nuclear authorities in their wishful thinking that such an outcome was unimaginable. March 11, 2011, was a day of reckoning and yet the manner in which the disaster has been addressed betrays a callous disregard for human suffering in the aftermath, as communities have been destroyed and people have been offered little solace nor justice by the institutional authorities who were charged with looking after their best interests.3

In an effort to restore its reputational damage, the government and nuclear industry alike have promoted a narrative of resiliency among those most egregiously affected, but the nuclear village itself has proven perhaps to be the most resilient of all: the government maintains a long-term nuclear agenda to restart most of the reactors, despite the humanitarian cost. Japan is invested in nuclear energy not only because it elevates the country’s status as a member of the league of nuclear nations, but has offered, in its most idealistic construct, a potentially significant portion of its overall energy output, with the economic benefits that would entail. By 2011 nuclear power comprised roughly 30% of Japan’s energy supply, but after the nuclear disaster the entire fleet of 54 reactors that were online in 2011 were shuttered to undergo testing and retrofitting under a newly established regulatory regime. Having replaced Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority set stringent new standards, and deemed that 33 reactors are classified as operable. Of these only 9 units at 5 power plants (all in Western Japan) have restarted; another 16 are at various stages in the process of restart renewal. Two reactors are under construction but are stalled pending approval to move forward, and another eight reactors proposed to be deferred indeterminately. The government now plans for 20% of its energy supply to come from nuclear power by 2030 (at the time of this writing in summer, 2021 only 6.5% of Japan’s electricity is nuclear generated).4

As the government seeks to return nuclear energy to a semblance of its former self, throughout the Tōhoku region, and most especially in the evacuated villages in Fukushima adjacent to the Daiichi plant, a sense of foreboding remains and is unlikely to lift anytime soon. Much of the area most affected by the nuclear disaster is in a remote, mountainous region where agriculture and fisheries were major industries before the radioactive fallout irrevocably wrecked the Fukushima brand. A massive exit migration has depopulated towns (a process that was well underway in the economically stagnant rural areas, long before the Fukushima crisis accelerated this process), or resulted in an age stratified population that remains. Elderly landowners, with ancestral roots and property investments have remained, but those under 40, especially with young children, have sought safer domains, free of the worry of radiation exposure and with better long-term career prospects.

Moreover, not only has the agricultural economy and the Fukushima brand been irrevocably tainted by its association with radioactive fallout, but the shuttering of the nuclear plant itself has removed tens of thousands of jobs, as a skeleton staff remains to implement the plant decommissioning at Daiichi. In Tōhoku the nuclear plants had, in an earlier time, been the hub around which communities where organized, and the tertiary industries that helped feed the beast have diminished to such an extent that many men (and in this culture, the nuclear industry is notably gendered) have had to resort to being employed in the emergent massive decontamination industry, essentially now being paid to clean up their own back yards, while subjecting themselves to continuous radiation exposure in the process. Claims that the true radiation exposure incurred in the process are minimal are cold comfort to those who long ago lost faith in the honesty of institutional actors, and it does not forbode well for authorities in their efforts to repair the reputational damage, however well-meaning their actions may be.

Trust in institutional authority is not a renewable commodity. The government and nuclear authorities are now left to reap the whirlwind sown in the toxic breeze of March 2011, as radiation was released on an ill-informed local population, that only days before could never have imagined such a calamity. Although as a matter of the normal regulatory process disaster protocols were in place, these had never been tested in extremis, and there was little concern among those within the nuclear industry and the locals whose communities were dependent on the nuclear plant’s operations for their livelihood that such an event could happen.

In 2016 and again in 2018 I joined with several colleagues to interview the mayors of Namie, Tomioka, Kawauchi, Futuba and Minami-Soma, the evacuated towns most severely affected by the nuclear disaster as it unfolded in the first few weeks of the disaster. In far reaching interviews with the mayors and their administrative staff, the sense of abandonment and betrayal in those more dire times generated a level of animosity that was palatable. Years later, as the political discourse on Fukushima promoted heroic tropes of long-suffering TEPCO staff at the plant5 and the resiliency of locals who remained to rebuild their lives, these feelings had only deepened as the confusion lifted and was given perspective by time and revelations that had not been known until much later, as secrets were revealed and investigative panels painted a more 3-dimensional picture of what had really unfolded in those darkest days. A lack of real-time support during the evacuations, brusque, tone-deaf messaging by TEPCO and the Japanese government, economic finagling that protected TEPCO from ultimate financial and legal accountability and a lack of sheer decency and empathy for those who had suffered the most was burned into the memory of the victims of Fukushima.

These wounds will be slow to heal and leave scars upon the psyche and land that will remain in the lived experience and subsequent oral tradition of this region,6 irrespective of public relation ploys that attempt to downplay the impact of disaster and recast what is a still unfolding disaster into an artificially abbreviated narrative that celebrates recovery that is far from complete. As the 75-year anniversary of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were commemorated not long before the 10-year anniversary of the Tōhoku disasters, it has been a time for reflection for the survivors of these historic tragedies. These survivors carry the weight of history in their experiences and serve as a reminder that the cost of state actions echo in the trauma endured by Hibakusha and those whose lives were disrupted by these disasters.7

The Tōhoku disasters – and the Fukushima nuclear crisis in particular, which captured the world’s attention and resonated symbolically in a way the tsunami never could – served as a vehicle for Japan to reposition its national brand post-3.11. A decade into the still unfolding disaster, Japan hosted the Olympics in the summer of 2021, and the world’s attention returned to Fukushima, with the torch relay beginning inside the previous evacuation zone, and the baseball games being staged in Koriyama, the largest city nearby the Daiichi plant.

The Japan Olympics were essentially the ultimate consolation prize for the tragic events of 3.11, evoking sympathy for the loss of life, the destruction of a vast swath of infrastructure by the tsunami, and the toxic environment that people in Northeastern Japan have endured. By granting Japan the status of host nation, the IOC offered a symbolic gesture of good will toward Japan. Two generations after the 1964 Olympics helped usher Japan into the modern age, symbolically marking a pivot point in history following the devastation of WWII, which utterly devastated 67 Japanese cities through firebombing and the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bomb attacks, the 2020 Olympics promised to cast Japan as an exemplar of long-suffering fortitude and civic-minded communitarian spirit. This was soft-power politics refracted through the prism of disaster and recovery rather than pop-culture consumerism.8 The Olympics hold out the prospect of being the ultimate exercise in soft-power and have often been employed as a form of nation building, an opportunity for the host country to showcase an idealized representation of itself. This was a difficult enough feat to achieve with resentment toward the government’s inept response to the events of 3.11 still lingering in the collective memory, but the emergence of the COVID-19 crisis in 2019 largely eclipsed the grand narrative of Fukushima as the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 Olympics became inexorably linked.

The opening ceremony of the Olympics were an eerily sedate and symbolically resonant reflection on how COVID-19 had disrupted the normal operations of the Olympics, evoking confusion and alienation from inter-personal relations upon which the sentiments of Olympian solidarity are grounded. It was as much a commentary on the organization of the games as it was on the higher values the IOC and host nations strive to promote to sustain the idealistic brand of the games.

By the time the Olympics were actually staged, the Japanese authorities had gone down a convoluted path of trying to manage a message that would sanctify the games and burnish Japan’s reputation. Originally this was directed toward the powerful associations attached to the “Fukushima Olympics,” which in the runup to the games was a central concern. Later, this would be almost entirely eclipsed by the COVID pandemic.

“Dreams of Fevered Imaginations”: MOCCO, the Fukushima Reconstruction Puppet.

On The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games website, MOCCO is characterized by its creators in this way:

“The local dialect where I was born in Miyagi includes the word ‘Odazumokko’, which refers to a popular person who is lively and mischievous. An example sentence is ‘the only son of the family who runs the stationery shop has always been an incorrigible odazumokko, but he’s made it to Tokyo and is doing shows there.’ The word ‘mokko’ originates from a word for carrying a basket, so we used this word for MOCCO to express that he travels bearing people’s thoughts and ideas.” (Kudō Kankurō, scriptwriter, director, actor) 

“MOCCO appears abruptly out of nowhere. Neither adults nor children are afraid of him and while he might look a bit scary, it is kind of a cute scariness. There is lively talk about MOCCO all over and everyone has respect for him, which he fully realizes. Everyone knows that MOCCO carries with him dreams and hope, so while you’re having fun with him you should make a wish in your heart. Stomp stomp stomp, MOCCO is here!” (Arai Ryōji, picture book creator, illustrator). 

“MOCCO is with you when you are happy or sad, and is somewhere in your tender memories. MOCCO is there when you don’t know what tomorrow holds. MOCCO is always together with everyone”. (Kameda Seiji, music producer of Tōhoku no Sachi).

The design was revealed in May 2019, but the full-motion final rendering of the puppet was performed in Iwate Prefecture, Tōhoku, 50 days before the anticipated start of the 2020 Olympics, and then debuted in Tokyo on July 17, 2020, and was thereafter put on display in Tokyo throughout the duration of the Olympics. Conceived as a collaborative project between children and the puppeteers, who discussed their artistic scribblings of the disaster with the puppet creators, MOCCO looks to be a skeletal bricolage of tsunami debris, rendered in human form. In its dramatic unveiling, MOCCO comes to life bellowing smoke from its mouth, knocking the puppeteers to the ground. Did they imagine this represented the radiation plume? Lacking the redeeming qualities of kitsch that animated the radiated lizard, MOCCO seems nothing less than a modern-day Godzilla for the 3.11 disasters. It immediately reminded me of the grotesquerie of Gunther von Hagen’s platinated human corpses, that were put on display in his exhibit “Human Body Worlds,” discomforting audiences around the world.

Although inspiration may have been provided by children whose lives were disrupted by the Tōhoku disasters, MOCCO seems less the product of an idealist vision of future hope and recovery than an embodiment of their nightmares of having lived through a disaster beyond their imagining. The French playwright Philippe Néricault, (a.k.a. Destouches), famously said: “La critique est aisée et l’art est difficile” (Criticism is easy and art is difficult) and so it is perhaps a cheap shot to parody the intentions of these well-meaning artists who brought this vision to life and paraded it in front of the victims of 3.11 in service of the grand notions of resilient nationalism. But art resonates in our collective unconscious in ways not easy to articulate, and it is hard to imagine that this 10-meter animated puppet comprised of tsunami flotsam on a skeletal frame would be a comforting presence for those who recall the vision of the devastation that lay strewn before them as the tsunami destroyed everything in its path.

Billed as “The Reconstruction Olympics,” Japan was selected as the Olympics host partly in sympathy for the impact the 3.11 disasters had on Japan (the most expensive set of conjoined disasters in world history) and as a form of nation branding in service of a narrative of resiliency, not only with regard to the people of Tōhoku who endured the worst of it, but also of the Japanese nation itself. It is ironic, but hardly surprising, that a kind of political alchemy has rendered the suffering of the victims of the nuclear disaster as a symbol of long-suffering fortitude, while implicitly endorsing the structure of collusive interests which sustain the nuclear village, which set the conditions for the disaster in the first place. For those on the receiving end of this, there has been a withering retrospective accounting of disaster management after 3.11 and hard-earned suspicions about the State’s ability to protect public health while promoting the reactor restarts under the guise of recovery on an Olympics timeline.

The Olympics long ago lost their idealistic luster as representing the epitome of “amateur” athletics and have become a marketing juggernaut and form of symbolic nation branding, providing incentive to hold the games irrespective of the long-term costs they lay at the feet of the hosts. Although the host nation may bask in the short-term glare of world attention and the adoration of their athlete stalking horses, the collusive interests between marketing conglomerates, the International Olympic Committee, and nation-states, they ultimately inherit the economic burdens created by cost overruns and infrastructure projects whose functional use is short-lived and cause for regret as the transient games are played out and the host nation is thereafter left to settle accounts.

At the time of the 10-year anniversary of the 3.11 disasters, competing discourses muddied the waters of institutional memory. The cruel timing of the emergence of the COVID viral pandemic, right on the cusp of the initial scheduling of the Olympics to start in the late summer of 2020, eclipsed the previous focus on Fukushima as the defining motif of these times. Having been saddled with the economic cost of the Tōhoku disasters (the most expensive in world history) the COVID-19 viral pandemic undermined the feel-good rhetoric of the Olympics, which had been branded as the “recovery” and “reconstruction” Olympics, an ode to the protracted efforts of the government to dig itself out of the scurrilous association with its inept response to the crisis. But with COVID-19 running rampant and Japan at the end of the line for vaccinations (with the lowest rate of implementation among affluent countries, in the single digits as of summer 2021), the Olympics were initially postponed and then reluctantly held in defiance of public sentiment (at one point nearly 80% of Japanese citizens opposed holding the Olympics) while Japan imposed a de facto immigration firewall against foreign contagion, a longstanding trope of Japan as an insular, island nation unnerved by the threat of foreign invasion. This was entirely antithetical to the notion of universal inclusion that defines the Olympic mission, and it undermined Japan’s efforts to construct an artifice of salutary resiliency in the face of adversity.

It is difficult to gaze upon the spectacle of the 2020 Japan Olympics being undone by the COVID-19 pandemic and not see this through the lens of the Fukushima disaster response.9 Karl Marx wrote that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”10

There are obvious parallels between the manner in which the Tōhoku disasters were handled and the Japanese government’s response to both the COVID-19 viral pandemic and the Olympics. These are all epic, culture-transforming events that are historic in scale, and they cast into stark relief all the deficiencies of the State in its inability to address disasters at this scale. Major disasters expose the weakness of governmental institutions to address multi-dimensional complex disasters effectively. While certain aspects of Japanese culture were complicit in this, culture alone cannot account for the systemic failure of institutions, especially when in calmer times these same institutions are held up as exemplars of bureaucratic competence. One of the most shocking things about the Tōhoku disasters is that it highlighted a yawning gap between the stereotype of Japanese hyper-competency and the abject failure of institutions to effectively address the immediate needs of the moment as these severe disasters wreaked havoc, and it exposed an inability to care for people in their darkest hours of need.

In the nuclear crisis, a lack of governmental coordination left local authorities to fend for themselves, playing catch-up in a reactive mode that left them feeling embittered and abandoned. With the COVID pandemic response, a similar dynamic has played out. Despite having experienced at close hand the SARS-COVID outbreak in 2002/2003—which, like the 2019 SARS-2-COVID pandemic, broke in China—and having been reminded by the glancing blow of the 2009 H1N1 (“Swine Flu”) and the MERS Coronavirus crisis of 2012, Japan remained woefully unprepared at a national level to deal with this emerging pandemic. Although comparatively benign “lock-downs” (largely in name only, with no strict enforcement sanctions) limited the spread of the virus, the Japanese authorities doggedly refused to implement wide-spread testing to monitor the pandemic progression, and relied primarily on a local level response whereby medical clinicians were left to their own devices to assess patients, often with no COVID testing to verify their diagnoses, except in the most extreme cases.11

Japan has no national level coordinating body for infectious disease (comparable to the WHO or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S.), and thus little guidance was given to medical authorities as to what actions were necessary. The political messaging also reflected this, with the government providing periodic announcements while remaining obstinately reactive to the pandemic as it worked its way through the population. With the penultimate date of the Olympics approaching, the Japanese authorities dithered until they were eventually forced to concede to reality and cancel the Olympics. As the COVID pandemic was amplifying in 2020, this may have been the most prudent decision, but then having had this dress rehearsal and a year-long intermission before the Olympics were set to restart in the summer of 2021, the most obvious mitigating action of vaccinating the population was delayed. A couple of months shy of the start of the 2020 Olympics, Japan still had not implemented a wide-spread testing regime or distributed vaccines. Only 3% of the population had been vaccinated by this time – the lowest among affluent countries by far – and what vaccines that had been given targeted those over the age of 65.

Japan enforced a strict exclusionary policy of closing the borders for immigration, allowing only Japanese nationals and long-term residents with occupation-specific visas to enter the country. At the same time, it was obstinately committed to holding the games despite every indication that it would be a logistical shambles and public opinion polls showing that 80% of the population was opposed to holding the Olympics, it was prohibiting immigration, with the result being that no foreign fans were present. As the virus continued to spread, it was decided that even local Japan-based fans could not attend except in limited circumstances and venues. Japan had great incentive to act decisively on “best-policy” practices and had all the essential information to make informed decisions, both to package the Olympics in a coherent and safe manner, and to protect its population from this insidious disease. And yet, with a series of embarrassing off-brand mishaps that highlighted the tone-deaf messaging of the Tokyo Organising Committee, it let opportunity after opportunity slip by with an almost fatalistic concession to circumstances as though they were beyond their control. They weren’t. Now, as with Fukushima, it is a time of reckoning, and an occasion to reflect on lessons unlearned, a lack of institutional accountability and reform and the consequences of governmental dysfunction and neglect.

In his classic work on suicide, the sociologist Émile Durkheim discussed anomie, a state or condition of normlessness, in which social values and norms are disrupted by social change, leading to a state of moral confusion. This well characterizes the decade following the 3.11 disasters in Japan: the economic disruption, loss of faith in government and legal authority, the disorientation of survivors, a spike in suicide and a general malaise as the Tōhoku region recovers from the tsunami and the Fukushima area is decontaminated and warily reinhabited by returning evacuees. Written over a century ago, Durkheim’s work seems prophetic as it encapsulates the anomic times Japan has experienced through the 3.11 disasters and the COVID viral pandemic, with the sideshow of the Olympics failing to provide the grand narrative of recovery that might have helped redeem State authority and mark a transition point to a return to normalcy. In this light, Durkheim’s words seem not only an indictment of the pursuit of economic solutions to social problems, but a commentary on the 2011 triple-disasters on top of the de facto triple-disasters of 3.11, COVID and the Olympics. Durkheim writes:

“The sphere of trade and industry… instead of being still regarded as a means to an end transcending itself, has become the supreme end of individuals and societies alike. Thereupon the appetites thus excited have become freed of any limiting authority. By sanctifying them, so to speak, this apotheosis of well-being has placed them above human law. Their restraint seems like a sort of sacrilege. So long as the producer could gain his profits only in his immediate neighborhood, the restricted amount of possible gain could not overexcite ambition. Now that he may assume to have the entire world as his customer, how could passions accept their former confinement in the face of such limitless prospects?… From top to bottom of the ladder, greed is aroused without knowing where to find ultimate foothold. Nothing can calm it, since its goal is far beyond all it can attain. Reality seems valueless by comparison with the dreams of fevered imaginations; reality is therefore abandoned…”12


Aven, T. (2015) ‘Implications of black swans to the foundations and practice of risk assessment and management,’ Reliability Engineering & System Safety, 134, pp. 83-91.

Casto, C.A. (2018) Station blackout: Inside the Fukushima nuclear disaster and recovery. Radius Book Group.

Downer, J. (2014) ‘Disowning Fukushima: Managing the credibility of nuclear reliability assessment in the wake of disaster.’ Regulation & Governance, 8(3), pp. 287-309.

Durkheim, E. (1951) Suicide: A study in sociology. Translated by J. Spaulding and G. Simpson. The Free Press.

Erikson, K. T. (1995) A new species of trouble: The human experience of modern disasters. WW Norton & Company.

Funabashi, Y. (2021) Meltdown: Inside the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Brookings Institution Press.

Haruta, J., Horiguchi, S., Miyachi, J., Teruyama, J., Kimura, S., Iida, J., Ozone, S., Goto, R., Kaneko, M. and Hama, Y. (2021) ‘Primary care physicians’ narratives on COVID‐19 responses in Japan: Professional roles evoked under a pandemic, Journal of General and Family Medicine.

Johnson, D.T., Fukurai, H. and Hirayama, M. (2020) ‘Reflections on the TEPCO trial: Prosecution and acquittal after Japan’s nuclear meltdown’ The Asia‐Pacific Journal, 18(2), pp. 1-35.

Kadota, R. (2014) On the brink: The inside story of Fukushima Daiichi. Kurodahan Press.

Marx Engels Internet Archive. (1995) The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [Online]. Accessed: June 5, 2021. 

Muto R., and Field, N. (2020) “This will still be true tomorrow: Fukushima ain’t got the time for Olympic games: Two texts on nuclear disaster and pandemic,” Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 18(13), no. 2, pp. 1-20.

Ronalds, P. (2019) ‘The ruptures of rhetoric: Cool Japan, Tokyo 2020 and post-3.11 Tōhoku,’ The Japan Foundation: New voices in Japanese Studies, 11, pp. 26-46.

Sakaki, A. and Lukner, K. (2013) ‘Introduction to special issue: Japan’s crisis management amid growing complexity: In search of new approaches,’ Japanese Journal of Political Science, 14(2), pp. 155-176.

The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, 2020. [Online] Accessed July 6, 2021.



Casto, C.A., 2018.2

Funabashi, Y., 2021. 3

Johnson, D.T., Fukurai, H. and Hirayama, M., 2020. 4

World Nuclear Association, 2021. 5

Kadota, R., 2014. Kadota was the only journalist to interview Daiichi plant manager Yoshida Masao before his untimely death by cancer (not attributable to the Fukushima disaster, according to TEPCO). Kadota’s book promotes a narrative of epic heroism by “The Fukushima 50,” a self-selected group of operational staff at the plant who elected to stay on to fight the battle despite facing the prospect of lethal radiation doses if they remained. This was the basis for a major production film as well. 6

Erikson, K.T., 1995. 7

Ruiko, M., and Field, N., 2020.8

Ronalds, P., 2019.9

Sakaki, A. and Lukner, K., 2013.10

Marx Engels Internet Archive, 1995.11

Haruta, et al., 2021.12

Durkheim, E. 1951, p. 279.

September 8, 2021 Posted by | Fukushima 2021 | , , | Leave a comment

Media Coverage of Fukushima, Ten Years Later.

Martin Fackler

Abstract: When taking up the unlearned lessons of Fukushima, one of the biggest may have been the need for more robust oversight of the nuclear industry. In Japan, the failure of the major national news media to scrutinize the industry and hold it accountable was particularly glaring. Despite their own claims to serve as watchdogs on officialdom, the major media have instead covered Japan’s powerful nuclear industry with a mix of silent complicity and outright boosterism. This is true both before and after the Fukushima disaster. In the decades after World War II, when the nuclear industry was established, media played an active role in overcoming public resistance to atomic energy and winning at least passive acceptance of it as a science-based means for Japan to secure energy autonomy.

During the Fukushima disaster, the media served government objectives such as preservation of social order by playing down the size of the accident and severity of radiological releases, resulting in widely divergent coverage from serious overseas media. While a short-lived proliferation of more critical and independent coverage followed the disaster, the old patterns returned with a vengeance after the installment of the pro-nuclear administration of Abe Shinzō. This article will examine the roots of the Japanese media’s failure to challenge or scrutinize the nuclear industry, and how this complicity has played out in the post-Fukushima era. It will use a historical analysis to look at how the current patterns of media coverage were actually established in the immediate postwar period, and the formation of public support for civilian nuclear power. 

During my 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Tokyo, including a six-year stint as Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times (2009-2015), I often covered the same news events as Japanese journalists, standing shoulder-to-shoulder at more press conferences than we’d care to count. While I admire many Japanese colleagues individually as journalists, I was frequently struck by the shortcomings of Japan’s big domestic media and Japanese journalism as an institution. 

But never did I feel these structural weaknesses as keenly as I did in the tense weeks that followed the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

In Minami-soma, a city 25 kilometers north of the stricken plant, where some 20,000 remaining residents were cut off from supplies of food, fuel and medicines, I discovered that journalists from major Japanese media were nowhere to be seen. They had withdrawn from Minami-soma, forbidden by their editors in Tokyo from approaching within 30 or 40 kilometers of Fukushima Daiichi. 

By doing so, they had essentially abandoned the already isolated residents. But you would never know that from the media’s stories, which made no mention of their own pull out or the perceived risks that had prompted this retreat. Instead, the main newspaper articles uniformly repeated official reassurances that there was no cause for alarm because the radiation posed “no immediate danger to human health,” as the chief cabinet secretary at the time, Edano Yukio, so famously put it.1

The mismatch between word and deed—between what the newspapers were telling their audiences and what they were actually doing to protect their own journalists—was glaring. It turned out that this was only the first of several instances during the Fukushima disaster where I witnessed Japan’s major media adhering to the official narrative regardless of the facts on the ground. I refer to this phenomenon as “media capture,” borrowing from the more widely used term “regulatory capture,” which is used to describe a similar failure of government oversight of the nuclear industry.

Over the months and years that followed the meltdowns, I saw numerous instances of national media refusing to take a critical or distanced stance in their coverage of the nuclear industry and its government regulators. Instead, they repeatedly chose to internalize the official narratives and even adhere to the government-approved language. We saw this is the widely diverging narratives that started appearing in the serious foreign press versus the major domestic media as the accident worsened. 

To cite a straightforward example, we started using the word “meltdown” within hours of the first reactor building explosion at the plant, reflecting the almost unanimous view of outside experts that a melting fuel core was the only realistic source of the hydrogen that caused the blast. However, the domestic national dailies and NHK avoided the word “meltdown” (in Japanese, merutodaun) for months, following the insistence of the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry (METI), the powerful government agency that both promoted and regulated Japan’s nuclear industry, that a meltdown had not been confirmed. The big Japanese media used other official euphemisms as well, including “explosion-like event” to describe the massive blast at the Unit 3 reactor building, which blew chunks of concrete hundreds of feet into the air. 

In fact, I even had Japanese journalists calling me to berate me and my newspaper for using the M-word without METI’s permission. Readers of the Japanese national dailies didn’t see the M-word until mid-May, when METI and the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. or TEPCO, conceded in public that Fukushima Daiichi had indeed suffered a meltdown in mid-March—three meltdowns, in fact.

In the chapter that I wrote for Legacies of Fukushima: 3.11 in Context, I tried to explain some of the reasons why the civilian nuclear power industry could have such a peculiarly strong grip on the media and their narratives. The nuclear industry was a national project that was promoted by the powerful central ministries as a silver bullet for resource-poor Japan’s dependence on imported energy. This gave it an elevated status as the elite bureaucrats guided Japan’s postwar recovery and economic take-off.

I looked at the media’s dependence on Tokyo’s powerful central ministries, which takes its most visible form in the so-called kisha kurabu, or “press clubs.” These are arrangements that allow national media to station their journalists inside the ministries and agencies, where they are given their own room and exclusive access to officials. Much of the reporting by the major Japanese media starts in the kisha kurabu, where journalists gather to wait for the next press conference or off-record briefing from officials. The kisha kurabu system fosters a passive form of journalism, in which reporters become dependent on the ministry within which they are embedded. In pursuit of a scoop that can make or break a career, the journalists compete for handouts from ministry officials. All too often, they enter a Faustian bargain in which the journalists swap narrative control in exchange for exclusive access to information. The result is a passive form of access journalism that ends up repeating spoon-fed official narratives. 

I also looked to the past at the emergence of newspapers like the Asahi Shimbun during the early to mid-Meiji era, when the national priority was to protect autonomy by finding a way to catch the industrialized West. I argued that this history baked into the mindset of Japanese journalists a feeling of responsibility for the fate of their nation, including its vital energy needs. It also led to an identification with the government, and particularly the elite officialdom, as protectors of Japan and its people from predatory foreign powers. This inclination to side with the state has continued in the postwar period, when journalists have clearly seen themselves as members of a national elite attached to a broader bureaucratic-led system. 

One point that I wanted to underscore was that this media capture was not something so simple or venal as corruption. This is how it is often portrayed by critical Japanese writers, usually freelancers and book authors, who focus on the so-called Nuclear Village, a nexus of business, government, labor unions, academia and news media linked by the cash flowing out of the highly profitable nuclear plants. While money doubtlessly plays a role in many of these relationships, including perhaps the for-profit commercial TV broadcasters, I see no direct evidence that it sways the coverage of the national newspapers. These are privately held companies for whom advertising is a much less important revenue source than subscriptions (or the rent from their valuable real estate holdings in central Tokyo and Osaka).

Regardless of the cause, the result has been generations of postwar journalists who have consistently failed to serve as watchdogs on one of the nation’s most politically powerful industries.2 Starting in the 1990s, public scandals started plaguing the industry, and TEPCO in particular. In 2002, government inspectors announced that TEPCO had been routinely falsifying safety reports to hide minor incidents and equipment problems at reactors including several at Fukushima Daiichi. TEPCO eventually admitted to more than 200 such violations stretching back to 1977. Five years later, TEPCO revealed even more cover-ups of safety issues, which the company had failed to report in the previous inquiry. 

Despite what was clearly a chronic and systemic failure of both internal compliance and government oversight, no one was arrested or charged, and the existing regulatory framework left unchanged. The media could have played a role of holding the regulators’ feet to the fire by exposing the structural problems behind this abysmal record of obfuscation and cover-ups. Instead, the watchdogs chose to remain largely silent, reporting on the government’s revelations, but making few efforts at independent investigative reporting.

Of course, such criticisms enjoy the benefits of hindsight, with the accident in 2011 making it easier to see these failures as part of a broader narrative that leads inevitably to Fukushima. But how about after 2011, when the severity of the disaster led to numerous calls for reform? During that time, the national media have also been held up to uncomfortable scrutiny by a jaded and distrustful public, who felt betrayed by their early coverage of the accident. 

Unfortunately, ten years later, nothing seems to have changed.

This was apparent in mid-April of 2021, when the Japanese government announced a decision to release into the Pacific Ocean more than 1.2 million tons of radioactive water that has been building up in hundreds of huge metal tanks on the grounds of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. (The accumulation of contaminated water has plagued the plant from the early days of the disaster. TEPCO has resorted to some high-tech solutions with mixed results, including a mile-long “ice wall” of frozen dirt that failed to fully block the water, much of which flows into the plant from underground.) 

The water stored in these tanks contains tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that is best known for its military use as the fuel for thermonuclear warheads (hence the term “hydrogen bomb”). On the spectrum of radioactive substances, tritium emits relatively low levels of radiation in form of beta particles. But it is a radioactive substance nonetheless, a fact that major media played down or even omitted by choosing, once again, to adopt the industry and government’s language to describe the dump. The main news stories in the major national newspapers and TV broadcasts used the official term for this water, which is shorisui, or “treated water.”

While technically correct, this term euphemistically glosses over the fact that this is not the same as, say, treated sewage water. Nor does treated water convey the fact that this water still contains a radionuclide that emits beta radiation. 

One result was an interesting battle of words that pitted the mainstream media, which used the approved “treated water,” against journalists who were outside the press club’s inner circle. These publications and web sites chose to use clearer terms such as osensui, or “contaminated water.” The leftist daily Tokyo Shimbun, a smaller regional newspaper that has stood out for its more critical coverage of the nuclear disaster, compromised by calling the water osenshorisui, or “contaminated treated water.”3

More eye-opening was the fact that there were actually efforts to enforce use of the officially approved term. As many journalists discovered, there was an army of social media trolls at ready to pile onto anyone with the temerity to use more critical terminology, and particularly “contaminated water.” TEPCO and the government mobilized university experts and PR professionals to police the public sphere for use of words that were deemed “unscientific” and “ideological.”

Of course, the choice of the word “treated” is itself also highly political. It buttressed the larger message put forth by the government and the plant’s operator that the release of this water was no cause for alarm, but something very common and normal that nuclear plants around the world do all the time. By accepting the official terminology, the media were implicitly adopting this framing of the issue, which focused on the claim that the water could be diluted to the point of being harmless when dumped into the Pacific.

Scientifically, this is a valid claim. My point here is not to take sides. Rather, I am criticizing the large domestic media for failing to do the same: i.e., not take sides. By adopting the official narrative, the media were complicit in the government’s and TEPCO’s exclusion of other, also valid counterarguments. One of the biggest is the fact that this release is anything but normal. No nuclear plant has ever conducted an orchestrated release of such a huge quantity of tritium-laden water. (At the time of writing, the amount, 1.2 million tons, is enough to fill almost 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.) Worse, the release is to be carried out in the same closed, opaque manner as the rest of Japan’s decade-long response to the disaster. Unless TEPCO and METI break with past precedent to allow full international oversight to verify that the water is as clean as they claim it is, we are left once again to trust actors who have consistently violated public faith. 

Just as importantly, there are valid reasons to at least question whether the water is as clean as TEPCO says it is. The company has been telling us for years that it has installed state-of-the-art treatment and filtration technologies that scrub the water of every radioactive particle except tritium. However, in 2018, the plant operator suddenly revealed that 75% of the treated water at the plant still contained excessive amounts of other, more radioactive substances including strontium 90, a dangerous isotope that can embed itself in the living tissue of human bones.4

To be fair, TEPCO may be right in its assessment of the water’s safety. Even so, it is the job of conscientious journalists to take a skeptical attitude toward such claims until they can be independently verified. The media also need to remind why this is necessary, given the company’s and the industry’s history of cover-ups. My goal here is to fault the major domestic media for once again failing to do this, despite the bitter lessons of 2011. Adopting the language of METI and TEPCO privileges the official perspective over others. It shows that the journalists are internalizing the official framing of the event and how it should be discussed and understood. 

Officialdom is thus allowed to set the boundaries of public debate, excluding more critical perspectives as “political,” “unscientific” or even “foreign.” The last characterization reflects the fact that the Chinese and South Korean governments raised some of the loudest objections to the release. The media have tended to frame these as the latest in a litany of self-serving complaints by Asian rivals that like to accuse Japan of failing to apologize for World War II-era atrocities. While Beijing and Seoul may have political motives for seizing on the water issue, this shouldn’t be a reason for journalists to avoid taking up more substantive criticisms about the release. Opposition has appeared in many other countries and reflects the failure of Japan to consult with other nations that share the Pacific Ocean, which will be the site of the mass water dump. 

This is a failure by media, once again, to inform their readers of the existence of alternative narratives that take a dimmer view of the actions taken by Japan’s officialdom, or that point out where government interests diverge from those of Japan’s public. This is also a failure of a different sort: of media to protect their own intellectual independence. By uncritically adopting the official narratives, the journalists are relinquishing the right to frame in their issues. This surrendering of agency is the central fact of the media capture that I described above.

To be clear, Japan is not unique in suffering from the problem of media capture. The press in other democratic countries face similar challenges. In the United States, we use the term “access journalism” to describe the pitfalls of journalists, often in Washington, who trade autonomy for exclusive access to official sources. However, Japan’s version of access journalism is more extreme, producing a uniformly monolithic coverage closer to that in non-democratic societies. The most apt American equivalent may be the period of extreme patriotic fervor between the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, when U.S. media failed to adequately challenge the erroneous claims of the Bush administration that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

In Japan’s ongoing Fukushima disaster, this lack of agency manifests itself as a failure to not only set the narrative, but even to decide what is newsworthy. Most of the coverage is essentially an act of regurgitating the information that was distributed at the ministry’s kisha kurabu. Since the news reports are based on information received from ministry officials, not surprisingly they usually showcase the actions of those officials. Both the pages of Japan’s national dailies and the evening news broadcasts of NHK are filled with stories of Japanese officialdom in action, solving some problem or punishing some wrongdoer. Most news reports are mini-dramas in which officials play the starring role. As such, they serve as demonstrations that agency lies in the elite bureaucracies at the center of the postwar Japanese state, and not the major media, which seems to serve as an appendage. 

Even when critical stories appear, they are rarely the work of enterprising reporters unearthing facts that the powerful would rather keep covered. Rather, the revelations tend to come from official actors when they have decided to take action against malfeasance. One example was TEPCO’s cover-ups, mentioned earlier, which were exposed by nuclear regulators, not investigative reporters. A more recent example is revelations that started to become public in March 2021 of years of security lapses at the huge Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata, facing the Sea of Japan. Over the next two months, news stories dribbled out about workers who were able to access the sensitive areas around the plant’s nuclear reactors without proper ID. In one case in 2015, a man entered the reactor area using the ID of his father, who also worked at the plant. Once again, there lapses were not exposed by intrepid reporters but regulators themselves, who leaked them to prepare the public for their decision to reject TEPCO’s request to restart the plant.5

The lack of media agency is all the more glaring because there have been very notable exceptions. Japan’s journalists have shown that they are capable of true investigative reporting that can define and drive the public narrative. For a brief window of time during the early years of the Fukushima disaster, some major Japanese media experimented with more autonomous journalism. This began in the late summer of 2011, as public disillusionment in the domestic press’s compliant coverage grew. This prompted some media to try to re-engage readers with more hard-hitting reports that challenged the official claims.

The most notable of these efforts was launched by the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second-largest daily, which beefed up a new reporting group dedicated to investigative journalism. (By investigative journalism, I mean journalists taking the initiative to pry out hidden truths and assemble these into original, factual narratives that challenge the versions of reality put forth by the powerful.) The Asahi’s investigative division got off to a strong start by winning Japan’s most prestigious press award two years in a row. It scored what it trumpeted as its biggest coup in May 2014, when two of its reporters wrote a front-page story that exposed the dangerously poor crisis management at the plant as it teetered on the brink of catastrophe. The story revealed that the government had hidden testimony by the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s manager during the accident, Yoshida Masao, who later died of cancer. It also recounted what it said was the most explosive revelation of this secret testimony: that hundreds of workers and staff had fled the crippled plant at the most dangerous point in the disaster, despite the fact that Yoshida never gave them the order to leave.

However, the Asahi erred by giving the story a misleading headline, which left readers with the impression that the workers had fled in defiance of Yoshida’s order to stay. (In fact, Yoshida himself says in the testimony that his order didn’t reach these workers—a stunning breakdown in command and control that was lost in the subsequent blow up over the article.) This misstep gave critics the opening that they needed to try to discredit the entire story, and by extension the newspaper’s proactive coverage of the disaster. A host of critics, including the prime minister himself and the rest of the mainstream media, set upon the Asahi with unusual ferocity. After weeks of withering attacks, which essentially accused the newspaper of lacking patriotism and of belittling the heroic plant workers, the Asahi’s president made a dramatic surrender in September 2014, retracting the entire article, gutting the investigative team and resigning his own job to take responsibility for the fiasco.6

Thus marked the end of the Asahi’s short-lived foray into investigative journalism, which I have described in more detail in this journal.7 Suffice it to say here that when forced to make a choice, the Asahi, the nation’s leading liberal voice favored by the intelligentsia, chose to remain on the boat. To preserve the privileged insider status as a member of the kisha kurabu media, the newspaper chose to sacrifice not only its biggest reporting accomplishment of the disaster, but also the journalists who produced it, who were sent into humiliating internal exile. For years afterward, the newspaper shunned proactive reporting on Fukushima, staying within safe confines of the official storyline.

The Asahi’s biggest mistake was its failure to stand behind its journalists. Investigative reporting is by nature a highly risky undertaking, and one that pits a handful of underpaid journalists against some of the most powerful members of society. By not only failing to stand up for its investigative reporters but trying to scapegoat them by punishing them for the mistakes in coverage, the Asahi sent a chilling message to all mainstream journalists: Newspapers don’t have your back. In such an environment, what journalists in their right mind would want to challenge the powers that be?

Admirably, some of the Asahi’s investigative reporters did stand their ground even at the cost of their careers at the newspaper. Soon after the debacle, two of the investigative group’s top reporters quit to launch Japan’s first NGO dedicated to investigative journalism, which in 2021 was renamed Tokyo Investigative Newsroom Tansa.8 Another resigned to join Facta, a Japanese magazine dedicated to investigative coverage (and offering stories that cannot be found in the large national newspapers). These decisions to place principle over company and career underscore my broader point: The sources of Japan’s media capture are bigger than the individual reporters and embedded in the structure of media institutions and the practice in Japan of journalism itself. 

The Asahi’s capitulation in 2014 marked the end of not just the Asahi’s but all the mainstream media’s efforts to create new, more critical narratives of the Fukushima disaster. These days, most reporting tends to fall into one of a few prepackaged, safely uncontroversial storylines. There is the Fukushima 50 narrative of successfully overcoming Japan’s biggest trial since World War II. Another is the “baseless rumors” (fuhyō higai) narrative, which casts fears of radiation as over-exaggerated, and usually the creation of women, leftists and foreigners. 

Journalists have told me that the Asahi’s surrender created a powerful prohibition on critical coverage. Having seen what happened to Japan’s leading liberal newspaper, and the star reporters there who lost their careers, few journalists have the stomach to challenge the status quo. The result is a grim new conformity. 

Adding to the pressure to toe the line has been the appearance post-Fukushima of another new, problem-plagued national project: the Tokyo Summer Olympics, originally scheduled for 2020. Coverage of the Olympics has again tended to adhere to official narratives, even as public misgivings grew in Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s decision to go forward with the Games a year later, in 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

From the start, the government has used the Olympics to divert attention from Fukushima while proclaiming that the disaster is now in the past. While there has been critical coverage, it has been the exception and not the rule. Indeed, the media’s silence was deafening when the previous prime minister, Abe Shinzō, told the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires in September 2013 that the plant’s “situation was under control,” even as contaminated water was then still bleeding into the Pacific. 

By failing to take the initiative in Fukushima, the media have ended up supporting official efforts to use the Games to put the lid back on the nuclear disaster. The Olympics have become yet one more means for Japan’s elites to regain control of the public sphere, or at least the part of it controlled by the big legacy media. (They have had less success asserting control over the much more anarchic and anonymous world of social media.)

The media’s reluctance to challenge the government has also been apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m still waiting for the investigative articles that expose the truth behind Tokyo’s biggest failures during the pandemic. The major media emitted barely a peep in response to the government’s blatantly discriminatory decision during the first six months of the pandemic to close Japan’s borders to all foreign nationals, including long-term residents, while allowing Japanese nationals to come and go. More importantly, I would be the first in line to read an investigative exposé into what delayed the roll out of vaccines in Japan.

All too often, coverage of COVID-19 ended up repeating the pattern that we saw in Fukushima. The media once again surrendered their biggest public asset: their power to challenge the official narrative and expose the facts that officials don’t want us to know. Instead, the major domestic media once again show themselves more interested in preserving their privileged insider status. By doing so, they once again do a disservice of their readers.

The need to serve their readers by finding an independent and critical voice should have been the media’s biggest takeaway from Fukushima. Instead, they appear to be merely repeating the mistakes of a decade ago.


Brown, A. and Darby, I. (2021) ‘Plan to discharge Fukushima plant water into sea sets a dangerous precedent’, The Japan Times, April 25 [Online]. Accessed: June 25, 2021.

Fackler, M. (2016) ‘Sinking a bold foray into watchdog journalism in Japan’, Columbia Journalism Review [Online]. Accessed: June 25, 2021.

Fackler, M. (2016) ‘The Asahi Shimbun’s failed foray into watchdog journalism’, The Asia Pacific Journal Japan Focus, 14(24) [Online]. Accessed: June 25, 2021.

Jomaru, Y. (2012) Genpatsu to media shinbun jānarizumu ni dome no haiboku [Nuclear Power and the Media: The Second Defeat of Newspaper Journalism]. Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Shuppan.

Kyodo. (2021) ‘Another security breach at Tepco nuclear plant uncovered’, The Japan Times, May 9 [Online]. Accessed: June 25, 2021. 

Ogawa, S. (2021) ‘Fukushima dai ichi genpatsu no osen shorisui, seifu ga kaiyō hōshutsu no hōshin o kettei e 1 3 nichi ni mo kanei kakuryō kaigi [Government Moving Toward Decision to Release the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant’s Contaminated Treated Water in the Ocean], Tokyo Shimbun, April 9 [Online]. Accessed: June 25, 2021.

Tansa. (2021) Tokyo investigative newsroom Tansa [Online]. Accessed: June 4, 2021.



SankeiNews (2011). “Edano kanbōchō kankaiken No1 ‘Tadachi ni kenkō shigai wa denai…’” [Chief Cabinet Secretary Press Conference Edano No1 ‘No Immediate Health Damage’]) [Online Video]. Accessed: August 23, 2011.2

Jomaru, 2012.3

Ogawa, 2021.4

Brown and Darby, 2021.5

Kyodo, 2021.6

Fackler, 2016.7

Fackler, 2016.8

Tansa, 2021.

September 8, 2021 Posted by | Fukushima 2021, Japan, media | , , | Leave a comment

10 years after Fukushima, justice remains elusive for victims of nuclear disasters

New report warns of inevitable nuclear accidents in the future

February 22, 2021

A new report from Northwestern University’s Meridian 180 community is sounding the alarm that victims of nuclear disasters worldwide remain inadequately compensated and calls for a more inclusive process for approving nuclear projects and making nuclear energy decisions that gives ordinary citizens a seat at the table.

The report, “Nuclear Compensation: Lessons from Fukushima,” calls for a rigorous and inclusive process that transcends national borders and enables wiser decisions about nuclear projects and their many lingering consequences.

“We’re often inclined to think that nuclear disasters don’t happen very often, but that doesn’t take into view the damaging impact these disasters have in the long run on people, agriculture and anyone in the path of the nuclear fallout, sometimes beyond national borders,” said Hiro Miyazaki, Kay Davis Professor of Anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and editor of the report.

The report is an outgrowth of more than five years of collaborative research on the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima nuclear disasters among scholars and experts across three continents. Its authors include Northwestern Associate Provost and Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs Executive Director, Annelise Riles, the University of Toronto’s Mary Mitchell, Virginia Tech’s Sonja Schmid, Waseda University professor Takao Suami and Nagoya University professor Dai Yokomizo.

The report particularly emphasizes how compensation schemes for victims of nuclear accidents have not adequately addressed the plight of affected citizens.

“In the case of Fukushima, a large amount of money has been paid out to victims, but remains inadequate,” said Riles. “Many who suffered tremendous losses, but reside outside of the mandatory evacuation zone, have not been compensated. We need new, and much more inclusive nuclear disaster preparation processes involving careful deliberation over who deserves to be compensated in the wake of a nuclear disaster, and who should bear the costs.”

The report will be released during a virtual event co-sponsored by Northwestern and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on March 9, featuring experts on nuclear issues, as well as victims of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

The keynote address will be delivered by Allison Macfarlane, former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and director of the University of British Columbia School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.

The event will also include perspectives from Kazuhiro Yoshida, mayor of the town of Namie in Fukushima, as well as victims of Fukushima, including Masakazu Suzuki and Hidenori Konno, who are leaders of the plaintiffs in lawsuits against the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

Leading voices on nuclear issues and disaster response, including Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists president and CEO Rachel Bronson and University of Chicago professor Robert Rosner, will conclude the event with a panel discussion and live Q&A session. 

“Ten years after Fukushima, it remains essential that we tackle, head on, the full costs and benefits of nuclear energy. Fukushima is a warning of what happens when we shirk that responsibility,” Bronson said.

February 25, 2021 Posted by | Fukushima 2021 | , , | Leave a comment

“The nuclear plant took everything…”

“The nuclear plant took everything…” Kenichi Hasegawa was the local leader of Maeta District of Iitate Village, where even today mountains of bags of contaminated soil stand out. “The nuclear plant took everything. There used to be children here. When the kids were still here, we went to the hills together all the time. We picked many things, taught them all about it, it was natural. We can’t do anything like that any more. I mean, even the children are no longer here,” he says.

September 13, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , , | Leave a comment

Review: “Fukushima 50” Offers Uncontroversial Take On Japan’s Biggest Nuclear Disaster

1Starring Ken Watanabe, “Fukushima 50” avoids controversy as part of faithfully reflecting Japanese realities around Fukushima Daiichi.

By Anthony Kao, 9 Jul 2020

3.6 roentgen, not great, not terrible.” So goes the now-famous quip from the American HBO hit series Chernobyl. This line also bears relevance to Fukushima 50—the first blockbuster treatment of the world’s second-worst nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Starring A-listers Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato, the film lionizes the workers who prevented the Fukushima disaster from getting worse, and makes the incident accessible to general audiences. On that count, it’s “not terrible.” However, Fukushima 50 lacks nuance, poignancy, and dramatic value—mostly because it refuses to designate clear villains. In that sense, it’s “not great” either.

While this might mean Fukushima 50 will never gain the international popularity of Chernobyl, the movie is still immensely valuable and intriguing from a historiographical perspective. For better or for worse, its uncontroversial demeanor accurately reflects realities in contemporary Japanese sociopolitical discourse around the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and beyond.

Nuclear Heroism 

Fukushima 50 focuses on an eponymous group of employees at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, who were tasked with managing a triple meltdown that happened in the days after March 2011’s Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Chief among them are Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) and Toshio Isaki (Koichi Sato), the plant’s site superintendent and shift supervisor, respectively. While Yoshida was a real person, Isaki and all the film’s other characters are fictional composites.

The film offers a play-by-play dramatization of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, starting from just before the earthquake and continuing through the days afterwards. It alternates between scenes of the stricken plant itself, a seismically sheltered command center, and ancillary locations like the Japanese Prime Minister’s office and even a US military base.

Throughout, we’re treated to a panoply of tough and selfless men. They rush spiritedly into reactor rooms, haul fire hoses, subsist on dry food, and stare steely-eyed into the face of disaster. These are men on the move, men of action—valiant warriors (some literal, as Japan’s Self Defense Forces feature prominently) fighting an invisible enemy. You don’t need a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering to understand Fukushima 50, just a capacity for hero worship and ability to appreciate war movie tropes.



The Generation That Lived For Others”

This lionization of the Fukushima Daiichi plant workers isn’t surprising. Fukushima 50 was based on a book called On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi, which is available in English. In the book’s foreword, author Ryusho Kadota declares that “this is the story of the people who fought a heroic battle.” Unlike contemporary Japan’s predominantly selfish youth, Kadota argues, the Fukushima 50 are reminiscent of Japan’s WWII veterans, “the generation that lived for others.”

Piggybacking aboard war metaphors restricts Fukushima 50’s capacity for nuance and poignance. Unlike Chernobyl—with its bleak cinematography, bone-chilling use of geiger counter clicks, and soulless evacuation announcementsFukushima 50 does nothing to convey the trauma and mental toll of disaster. Additionally, for a movie that’s supposed to dramatize a “heroic battle,” Fukushima 50 lacks a compelling villain, even an abstract one. While Chernobyl warns about the cost of lies, Fukushima 50 warns about nothing at all. What caused the disaster? Is nuclear power bad? Should we invest more money in disaster preparedness? Fukushima 50 remains as silent as radiation.

Furthermore, the film barely contains the human tension usually necessary for compelling drama. There are only two notable moments when characters disagree about something: first when the Prime Minister helicopters into Fukushima and delays recovery operations, and second when superintendent Yoshida disobeys the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) orders and uses seawater to help cool Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors. Even those moments occur so perfunctorily that they don’t give the narrative much added momentum.



Fukushima Historiography

Fukushima 50 might not be the dramatic masterpiece that Chernobyl was, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable from a historical and political perspective. The film’s reluctance to hold anyone accountable and embrace of militaristic sentiment reflects contemporary Japanese realities; in that sense it can serve as an entrypoint for international audiences to build a better understanding of Japan.

Almost a decade on, Japan has not held anybody criminally responsible for the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and many who had to evacuate because of the meltdowns lack closure. After a brief upsurge following the disaster, Japan’s anti-nuclear movement has fizzled out as well. International and Japanese sources argue that nothing has meaningfully changed in Fukushima’s wake.

All this is despite civil lawsuits, international investigations, and even a report from Japan’s Diet (the national legislature) arguing that the disaster was “man made”—a result of inadequate preparedness and collusion between regulators, government officials, and TEPCO.

Some external analysts argue that moving forward from Fukushima can only come with a comprehensive re-examination of economic and political structures created by decades of effective one-party rule in Japan. While Japan is officially a democracy, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has held power for all but several years after World War II. The LDP remains in power today under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with desires to maintain the nuclear status quo whilst separately imbuing Japan with a more militaristic spirit. While Abe’s government wants to make Japan’s economy more agile, a radical rethinking of Japan’s political economy and culture isn’t on the agenda. Perhaps Fukushima 50 is simply a reflection of this reality.

Not Great, Not Terrible”

When “3.6 roentgen, not great, not terrible” appears in Chernobyl, it comes with the implication of those in power refusing to address a more systemic problem. With this extra lens, the quote seems even more relevant to Fukushima 50. Not only is the movie “not great, not terrible,” but its controversy-avoiding blockbuster treatment also reflects the lack of meaningful change that’s happened after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

Critics of this stance might argue that Chernobyl has far more leeway than Fukushima 50 to criticize; it’s easier for an American series that caters to primarily Western audiences to cast doubt on a foreign Soviet system. Yet Chernobyl wasn’t a pure critique of the Soviet Union. The series gained mass acclaim because it skewered contemporary Western societies’ disregard for truth.

While Japan isn’t the most conducive environment for political movies, it’s not incapable of producing movies that reflect upon the past with nuance and poignancy. Just look at Grave of the Fireflies, one of the most renowned examinations of WWII from anywhere in the world.

Alas, Fukushima 50 is no Grave of the Fireflies or Chernobyl, and that’s regrettable given Japan’s historical moviemaking prowess.

Japanese audiences might still be able to enjoy Fukushima 50 simply because it’s the first cinematic depiction of a significant national disaster. Those interested in Japanese politics or nuclear energy policy may find Fukushima 50 rich with food for thought. However, international audiences looking for a second Chernobyl should adjust their expectations accordingly.

July 16, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , , | Leave a comment

Fukushima 50 film review: drama about nuclear workers’ sacrifice following 2011 earthquake lacks punch

bbA still from Fukushima 50 (category IIA; Japanese) starring Koichi Sato and Ken Watanabe and directed by Setsuro Wakamatsu.


22 Jun, 2020

  • Ken Watanabe as Fukushima nuclear power plant superintendent, and Koichi Sato as shift supervisor, lead the battle to avert a meltdown after earthquake, tsunami
  • Blow-by-blow account of the real-life aftermath of the 2011 disaster in Japan loses much of its drama by refusing to point fingers or demonise decision-makers


2.5/5 stars

The first mainstream film to dramatise the lives of frontline workers who dealt with the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Setsuro Wakamatsu’s Fukushima 50 is an earnest, if somewhat toothless, celebration of those who risked everything to avert a reactor meltdown.

Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato headline this big-budget adaptation of Ryusho Kadota’s non-fiction book, On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi.

The film wastes no time setting up characters or pre-existing relationships, opening with the explosive underwater earthquake off the Tohoku coast of northeast Japan on March 11, 2011. The initial impact triggered an automatic shutdown of the Fukushima Daiichi power station’s nuclear fission reactors. The subsequent tsunami swept over the power plant’s coastal defence walls, flooded the main buildings and knocked out the backup generators responsible for cooling the reactor cores.

Facing an imminent meltdown, plant superintendent Masao Yoshida (Watanabe) and shift supervisor Toshio Isaki (Sato) spearhead a daring, potentially suicidal effort to cool the reactors using seawater, while fending off contradictory, face-saving orders from their superiors at Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) and the Japanese government.

In the nine years since the disaster, the Japanese film industry has broached the disaster’s aftermath numerous times, in films from Sion Sono’s uncharacteristically sombre A Land of Hope, to the allegorical 2016 blockbuster

Shin Godzilla

. The eponymous beast of the latter film has been the stand-in for national life-or-death reckonings since the dawn of the atomic era, but that film also took time to expose, and ultimately champion, the country’s multi-tiered bureaucratic leadership.


jjjlmKoichi Sato in a still from Fukushima 50.


Fukushima 50, and Kadota’s impressively researched book, give blow-by-blow accounts of the disaster and the courageous sacrifices made by those who chose not to evacuate, but stay behind and ensure the nation’s safety. However, arriving in the wake of HBO’s much lauded and dramatically superior miniseries Chernobyl, about the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine, Wakamatsu’s film feels lightweight, and the obstinate heads of Tepco a pushover compared to the Soviet Union’s fearsome Central Committee.

The film functions best as a memorial to Masao Yoshida, the only plant worker to have his real name used, whose willingness to go against his superiors ultimately prevented a far larger disaster, only for him to succumb to an unrelated bout of cancer in 2013. The film’s reluctance to point fingers, or demonise those responsible, saps much of the drama from this true-life tale of selfless heroism.

June 22, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , , , , | Leave a comment

Tracing Individual Perceptions of Media Credibility in Post-3.11 Japan


Sonja Petrovic


The 3.11 disaster revealed many shortcomings in Japan’s mass media organisations and government, the most prominent arguably being the poor handling of the disaster by central government and TEPCO, including miscommunication and delays in releasing accurate data on the dispersal of radioactive materials. The lack of transparency in mass media coverage of the nuclear meltdown and levels of radiation resulted in growing distrust among the public, who turned to online sources and social media to confirm or challenge information provided by the mass media.

Based on in-depth interviews with 38 Japanese individuals, this study explores individual perceptions of media credibility in a disaster context and in the present, elaborating how changes in trust in media intersects with the changes and dynamics in media use and how the 3.11 disaster continues to influence media use and perceptions of credibility today. The main findings of the study suggest that in the wake of the unprecedented national disaster, Japanese media users moved from using traditional mass media as their sole source of news to a personalised, inter-media environment which integrates both online and traditional modes of communication without replacing traditional media players. This further facilitated the practice of seeking and evaluating information and media credibility through new media forms of connectivity such as social media platforms and news websites.

Keywords: 3.11 disaster, communication gap, inter-media environment, mass media, media credibility, social media


Information needs and communication gaps

The 3.11 disaster in Japan is the epitome of an unforeseen, catastrophic and intrinsically disruptive event. On 11 March 2011, the northeast coast of Japan was struck by a powerful earthquake, which caused a chain-reaction of events: a devastating tsunami, continuous aftershocks and tremors, and damage to nuclear reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, resulting in nuclear meltdown and considerable dispersion of radioactive materials into the environment. In all phases of the disaster, Japan’s media played a crucial role in how people communicated and coped with a complex catastrophe. Nine years after 3.11, social recovery, reconstruction in disaster-stricken areas and delays in decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, which could take decades, remain ongoing concerns for Japanese public.

Trust is a critical component of disaster communication, and it is often tested in situations such as natural disaster and crisis (Mehta, Bruns, & Newton, 2017), where citizens’ demand for credible information increases. The exposure to inconsistent news and media reports can significantly alter people’s perceptions of media credibility (Gaziano & McGrath, 1987). Furthermore, in a disaster situation, the fragility of media is exposed (Endo, 2013) and people seek different ways to find the information they need and look for trusted media sources to reduce uncertainty and ambiguity (Lachlan et al., 2014a). During crises and natural disasters, many people rely on Twitter for its ease of access, timely updates and real-time information, and ability to identify users’ specific needs and concerns. However, despite social media’s critical role in communicating risk and disaster response, their fast and immediate dissemination comes with the risk of incomplete, misleading or inaccurate information. Another reason for questioning social media credibility is the shifting role of “gatekeepers” from producers to consumers (Westerman et al., 2014), which is why many people seek information from official and checked sources (Lin et al., 2016).

The 3.11 disaster was both a “natural” and a “man-made” disaster (Kingston, 2012). This overlap between natural and complex disaster setting, with high levels of uncertainty, amplified the critical need for credible, up-to-date and timely information on rapidly evolving events necessary for effective disaster management. Within the complex 3.11 media landscape, social media served as a new information tool and an essential medium for up-to-date, real-time news when other communication systems were not working, even as television remained a widely used medium in the first moments of the disaster (Jung, 2012).1 However, the complexity of what came to be known as the “Triple Disaster,” especially the nuclear meltdowns and the diffusion of radioactive materials, altered this significantly. The opaque nature of mass media reports and the communication gap between local and central government alongside contradictory announcements by Tokyo Electric Power Company (herein TEPCO)2 and media institutions, and the contradictory or insufficient information from the government, contributed to profound public distrust towards government and mainstream media institutions (Funabashi & Kitazawa, 2012; Hobson, 2015). Delivering information to the general public about levels of radiation was especially problematic shortly after the explosion in the nuclear plant. The inability of government, TEPCO, and national media to accurately communicate information and educate the public (Hobson, 2015) subsequently created confusion among citizens who, without prior knowledge on the levels of radiation, could not understand whether the reported levels of radiation were dangerous or not, or whether and how best to leave the area. This study has been driven by data collected from participants highlighting the lack of transparency in mass media coverage of the meltdown and levels of radiation, which led many to turn to alternative sources of information as the disaster was unfolding and to connect with a variety of sources and communities. In this context, individual perceptions of media credibility and confidence in Japanese media were significantly shaped and reconfigured by the 3.11 disaster and its changing media environment.

The erosion of public trust in Japan 

In the years following the 3.11 disaster, Japanese people have been expressing declining levels of trust in media institutions and government. According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, public distrust at the global level is on the rise, with 20 out of 28 countries polled being categorised as ‘distrusters.’ The survey from Edelman shows that Japan belongs to the category of ‘distrusters’ with continuously low levels of institutional trust; the most recent report shows 32 percent for media and 37 percent for the government (see Table 1.1.). Japanese trust in social institutions, including NGOs, media, government and business institutions is 11 percent lower than the global average in 28 countries surveyed, 37 percent versus 48 percent, placing Japan at the bottom of the list as the world’s least trustful, after US (43 percent), Germany (41 percent), Australia (40 percent), Canada (49 percent), and UK (39 percent). The report also shows overall distrust in both mass media and social media in Japan, with an insignificant gap of 4 percent between trust in journalism (41 percent) and social media platforms (37 percent). Thus, it is necessary to highlight factors that led to such low media credibility in Japan.

Table 1.1. Trust in media and government institutions in Japan 2010–2018

02Source: 2010-2018 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report


According to the World Press Freedom Index reports released in the period 2010–2018, it is evident that media freedom in Japan has been on the decline since 2012. With regard to the changes in ranking over eight consecutive years, Japan fell from being 11th on the list in 2010, to ranking 67th in 2018 (see Table 1.2.). From the time of 11 March 2011, there have been significant developments and changes in Japan’s government and political landscape, which also affected media institutions. Ever since the current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s administration took office in 2012, media freedom in Japan has been declining (see Table 1.2.).

Table 1.2. World Press Index Report 2010–2018: Japan

01Source: World Press Freedom Index 2010-2018, Reporters Without Borders


According to the media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, Abe’s administration poses a threat to media independence by its interference in the editorial policies of Japan’s public broadcasting service, and its dismissal of journalist reports that are critical of the ruling party, taking little account of the citizens’ right to information. Since the State Secrecy Law was launched in Japan in 2013, “investigative journalism has declined in Japan, as the government became legally entitled to designate sensitive information (such as national defense and Fukushima-related issues) as state secrets. The public’s right to information has become restricted.” (Oishi & Hamada, 2019, p.116).

Numerous studies of the 3.11 disaster raise pressing issues in Japanese journalism including mass media’s heavy dependence on government, thereby lacking independent and critical perspective in coverage of the disaster (Galbraith & Karlin, 2016; Gill, Slater, & Steger, 2013; Kingston, 2012; McNeill, 2013). After 3.11, due to the closed kisha club system,3 in which only professional journalists affiliated with the government are permitted to attend press conferences, freelance and foreign journalists faced many discriminatory measures taken by TEPCO and the Japanese government. They were prevented from attending press conferences and denied access to direct information (Segawa, 2011). Similarly, Pacchioli (2013) highlights the difficulty in understanding the risks and overall severity of the disaster because of lack of government explanation of the issues, while Friedman (2011) discusses the problem of a shortage of specialist reporters with technical knowledge about nuclear disaster and radiation risks. The lack of communication from the government’s side led to the promotion of the view in mass media that the situation in Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant was stable and under control (McCarthy, 2014, p. 185). Concerning this, McNeill (2014) argues that mass media sanitised news on the disaster to suppress panic and maintain a good image of the state, by limiting and often suppressing investigative reporting, to broadcast homogenised content. Furthermore, some studies argue that NHK did not report on nuclear disaster thoroughly, despite being the only television station with nuclear specialists among its journalists. Instead, it relied on TEPCO and government information sources, rather than utilising the expertise of independent sources (Ito, 2012; Yamakoshi, 2015). Although the focus of this study is Japan, a recent comparative analysis shows that Japan is not unique in respect to low media credibility and decreased trust in social institutions and media. Nancy Snow (2017) draws parallels between the post-3.11 Japan under the Abe administration and the post-9/11 propaganda and opinion control by the Bush administration to show how governments utilize manipulative media and public relations strategies to control opinion and rhetoric in times of national crises and wars.

Previous research has shown that levels of trust in media have significantly decreased since the 3.11 disaster (Aldrich, 2012; Newman, Fletcher, Levy, & Nielsen, 2016). A recent study by the Disaster and Media Research Group is one of the first attempts to assess the media’s lessons learned from media coverage of the Great East Japan Earthquake through qualitative in-depth interviews with representatives from Japanese mainstream national media outlets (Okumura, N., Hayashi, K., Igarashi, K., & Tanaka, A., 2019). The extant studies on the 3.11 disaster focus predominantly on questions of how and why media lacks credibility, and the general lessons learned after 3.11 with regard to trust in government institutions and mainstream media, utilizing different types of data, but rarely examining users’ perceptions of media credibility in the context of the 3.11 disaster and the present day. This makes invaluable investigation of individual media experiences through voices of media users in the context of the complex, inter-media environment that emerged with the 3.11 disaster. This study explores this issue through qualitative analysis of individual trust in mass media and social media concerning the 3.11 disaster and the present day.4

Furthermore, in addition to experiences gained by media executives and general surveys about trust levels in Japan, knowledge of how media users trust different media platforms and sources may have implications for how these media will evolve to better support disaster communication in the future. Having in mind that people heavily rely on media in the time of disasters and crises for timely and reliable information and that there is an anticipated risk of another major inland earthquake in the Tokyo metropolitan area, it is essential to utilise lessons learned from both sides, media representatives and media users, to prepare for future disasters.


Research Methodology

This study employs a qualitative approach to develop an in-depth understanding of changes and dynamics in participants’ media use in the context of the 3.11 disaster. Open-ended, in-depth interviews were designed to prompt individual participants to reflect on their experiences, convey opinions and provide insight into specific matters (Creswell, 2013). Analyses of the individual experiences with using media garnered from the interviews is positioned within the context of the immediate 3.11 disaster and the point of reflection, thus enabling us to understand the dynamics of the individual’s media usage.

Having in mind that the aim of this study is not to seek statistical generalisability, a snowball sampling method was used to select participants for the study. During two-months-long fieldwork in Tokyo,5 I interviewed 38 Japanese nationals, who were recruited by utilising my professional connections to reach some of the first participants, who subsequently provided referrals for further interviews. Drawing on the notion that the small sample size in qualitative research enhances data richness and a variety of participants (Moser & Korstjens, 2018), I intentionally selected participants differing in age (25–59), who could provide diverse perspectives on media use and credibility. Participants represented a wide range of occupations including managers, office workers, freelancers, consultants, dentists, students, professors and others. Table 1.3. shows basic demographic information about the interviewees, along with a brief overview of their main source of news during 3.11 disaster.

In the recruitment process, I avoided interviewing participants from the Tohoku region as it was directly affected by the triple disaster, and participants’ media usage patterns were disrupted and limited by the severity of the disaster, loss of electricity, evacuation and displacement. Further, digital engagement of people in the severely affected region was limited due to demographics and geography (Slater, Nishimura, & Kindstrand, 2012). I spoke to participants living in Tokyo, the neighbouring cities of Kawasaki, Yokohama, Saitama and surrounding areas who were less affected by the earthquake and tsunami than people on the north coast of Japan, but who could still feel the effects of the disaster, such as infrastructure disruptions, food and water shortages, electricity outages, mobile network failure and many others. Commuter trains, subways and bullet trains were all shut down due to the earthquake. Phone signals were mostly dead, preventing calls and messages from getting through for hours after the earthquake, so people formed lines in front of public phone booths. However, internet services were available in the areas with undamaged infrastructure, so people in Tokyo were able to use email, Skype, Line, Facebook or Twitter to establish contact with family and friends. Many Tokyo residents remain fearful about the impact of the nuclear disaster, as there were several hot spots with high levels of radioactive caesium in the metropolitan Tokyo area (Oishi & Hamada, 2019, p.114)

As the study uses the case of the 3.11 disaster to examine individual perceptions of media credibility, by looking at individuals’ recounting of media habits and experiences in using different media forms: TV, newspapers and online media (social media, news websites), the main population of interest for the study is media users who lived in a densely populated urban environment in Japan at the time of the 3.11 disaster, and who actively used some or all the above-mentioned media forms. As shown in Table 1.3, most participants whom I interviewed are residents of Tokyo, the city with the highest population density in Japan (Statistics Bureau of Japan, 2019).6 Extensive reliance on a Tokyo sample allows for an adequate investigation of individual attitudes and perceptions of trust in a media-saturated environment and exploration of variations in individual media use in high-density urban environments, and is driven by the notion that Tokyo is the city with Japan’s highest rate of mobile phone subscription, the highest mobile Internet penetration (63.3 percent), and second highest Internet penetration rate (71.9 percent) (Slater et al., 2012, p. 98). Given their heavy use of text messaging and internet, mobile phones play a significant role in the dissemination of news and disaster-related information in Japan. This is consistent with the research aim of reaching Japanese individuals, who can provide evidence of their changing notions of trust and current attitudes towards diverse media forms, including new digital technologies and platforms.

Table 1.3. Basic demographic information about participants (name, gender, age, city/region where participants resided during 3.11 and at the time of interviews) and the media platforms that they used in the three main phases of the 3.11 disaster



03Note: In the ‘Media Use’ column, media sources are listed in the order of their importance to the participant as an information source in the immediate aftermath of the 3.11 disaster


This article aims to trace changes and dynamics in the individual’s media use in relation to shifting levels of trust in media, in the context of post 3.11 Japan, through participants’ retrospective reconstruction of their past experiences. To do this, I first examine participants’ perceptions of the credibility of media they utilised in the context of the immediate and aftermath phases of 3.11, to understand the implications their perceptions have for shifts and changes in their media use habits. Then, I examine participants’ current perceptions of media they use and changes in general information seeking. The comparison of the immediate phase with the present-day phase revea;s how participants’ notions of media credibility fluctuate and intersect with everyday media use, and why participants assign higher credibility to certain media forms.


Rethinking media credibility and changing media use

Familiarity, gatekeeping and live images

The primary source of news for most participants immediately after the 3.11 earthquake was television, often complemented with social media and news websites, but occasionally used as a sole source of news. More than half of the total number of interviewed participants (38), recount using TV as their first source of news. Familiarity is one of the main reasons why it is considered highly credible, and most participants referred to TV as a common medium to which they turn in an emergency such as a natural disaster. The term “shūkan” (habit) was used to explain this. For example, one of the interviewees, Shinji,7 perceives TV as the primary medium for obtaining crucial information in a time of natural disaster:

“At least it is my habit to first turn on NHK, and if there is an earthquake, it has become customary to watch NHK. For now, it seems that many Japanese people have this habit of turning to NHK.”8

Another participant, Atsushi, similarly assumes that many people turned to NHK for the first news on the disaster: “The primary source of information for most people at that time was probably TV.”9

The notion of NHK as a familiar source of news in a time of emergency such as the 3.11 disaster, comes from the established role of NHK as official public institution mandated to report on major national events including disasters and safety warnings and designated to contribute to disaster prevention and crisis management through its broadcasts. In addition to broadcasting national events, NHK has long been established as a national medium, providing a wide range of news at fixed times as well as well researched features. NHK significantly underpins the habitual use of TV in Japan (Yoshimi, 2003). The centrality of NHK in delivering timely and accurate news on the disaster as it unfolded strengthened participants’ high levels of trust in the public broadcaster. In contrast, commercial broadcasters are only moderately trusted due to their perceived sensationalism and imbalance in reporting. In the context of 3.11, the focus of commercial broadcasters was primarily on sensationalist reporting which could bring higher ratings, such as screening high-impact images of the earthquake and rescue operations (Tanaka, 2013). NHK, as a public institution mandated to disaster prevention, focused more on keeping the public informed about safety measures, tsunami warnings, evacuation sites, to protect lives and property and help people in the disaster area (Tanaka, 2013).

In this way, besides prompt and balanced coverage of the 3.11 disaster, participants like Shinji and Atsushi refer to NHK as a habitual source for the first news and updates, which indicate that participants’ perception of NHK as credible comes from a positive personal experience and trust earned over many years.

Another overarching theme emerging from the interviews is that participants express confidence in the credibility of traditional mass media sources over social media due to the gatekeeping process through which information is filtered for publication and broadcasting (Newman & Fletcher, 2017). In explaining the reason behind the preference for television as a source of information during the 3.11 disaster, Chieko compares TV and social media (Facebook):

Of course, Facebook provides information, but precisely because it is Facebook, I do not know whether the information is accurate or not because it is written by individuals. It is good as a communication tool, but I am not sure if it is appropriate for information dissemination. That is why I trust TV… The information dissemination is at least based on pre-established rules, so in such cases, I can probably trust it.10

Some participants, like Sana, refer to the free flow of personally posted information found on various social media platforms, which significantly separates social media from traditional mass media forms in terms of source credibility:

“Because something that’s posted and shared on social media differs depending on the individual’s perspective and feelings, I think mass media is more reliable for confirming the facts without involving emotions.”11

While social media is considered useful for collecting local and personal information, more than half of participants associate the credibility of news with professionally produced information that is filtered, verified, accurate, clearly communicated and fair. This corresponds to professional integrity and work of media producers, journalists, and reporters, particularly from NHK and mainstream press. The convenience of and open access to social media means that the diffusion of rumours is more rapid than in traditional mass media. This can cause significant confusion, as was the case with the rumour tweets about the chemically contaminated rain that circulated in the wake of the great 2011 earthquake (Takayasu et al., 2015). In the disaster context, rumours on Twitter often contained ambiguous information and private opinions about various topics concerning safety and danger that induced anxiety or calls to action. When tweets with such content are retweeted, rumours spread (Umejima, Miyabe, Aramaki, & Nadamoto, 2011). Participants like Yoshi associate the credibility of news with professionally produced information and the gatekeeping process, which is essential to prevent rumours and misinformation:

“In terms of social media, after all, there is a flow of rumours, because there is no filtering… social media is not bad, but its negative side is indeed spreading rumours.”12

Similarly, Ryota discusses social media credibility referring to the information coming from unofficial sources, which are more likely to circulate opinionated and biased information and cause confusion:

So there are heaps of individual opinions there, and people with different standpoints have different opinions, but because it is not organised, there are too many extreme opinions…13

Keeping in mind the problem of rumours and the absence of gatekeepers in social media to check the accuracy and quality of information, it is evident that participants have more confidence in mass media sources, television and newspapers than in social media. This is because they perceive TV, particularly NHK, as official sources of news, less open to manipulation, at least when it comes to facts obtained through live broadcast.

Besides familiarity, the power of visuals, raw videos and moving images was essential for perceiving television as a highly reliable medium (McLuhan, 1964). This is evident from the repetitiveness in the use of the word: “eizō” (映像) when participants explain their preference for television in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear explosion. The word “eizō” is translated as “video image” or “screen image.” It was concurrently used across participants of varying ages, in the context of reliance on television and confidence in television’s credibility.

One of the interviewed participants, Fuji, explains she mainly watched television for its live coverage of the evolving disaster, and the constant flow of information which she can easily access on TV. More importantly, Fuji notes that her preference for television during the 3.11 disaster over other media forms comes from the perspective that video can best capture the real nature of a disaster. As an example, she mentions live footage of a helicopter flying over the Fukushima nuclear plant shortly after the explosion on 17 March 2011, which helped her understand the situation immediately after the nuclear disaster:

“Yes, I thought it was reliable. A video image does not lie. Rather than saying I believe it or not, I have to accept that video image is a fact. It is not that I can trust what people in the company are saying, but I took it as a fact because the person is in position to say that this kind of thing occurred in the nuclear power plant.”14

The helicopter footage was mentioned by other participants, like Takuya as one of the more effective ways to understand the evolving nuclear disaster:

The good side of television is still video image, isn’t it? Real-time… Horrible images are coming in real-time…15

As Takuya’s statement shows, live, closeup images of a hydrogen explosion and later of the helicopter dropping water on the nuclear plant, helped people visualise the disaster and understand its scope. The vividness of video images was often contrasted with a photograph, when discussing the role of TV in the immediate phase of the 3.11 disaster.

For example, when I asked Hana if she trusted TV during the 3.11 disaster, she explained: “It was quite like a movie, how can I say… flowing, because the media conveyed what was happening, and not the instant picture.16 In case of such a complex disaster as 3.11, it is these “moving” video images and the immediacy of broadcast that gave participants the confidence to make sense of information overload and believe that what they are seeing is a true representation of the situation unfolding. Döveling et al. (2011) argue that the visual proximity of the camera can convey the emotional tone of a disaster, thereby reducing the uncertainty and perception of media as unreliable, or only moderately credible. Live performance and images on the TV screen are perceived as more “convincing” than text on something which has already happened, and the familiarity with events comes from the “reality effect” which live television facilitates (Gripsrud, 1999).

Immediately after the 3.11 earthquake, a live video stream from the disaster area was continuously broadcast in a small square at the top of the screen, while the main TV screen showed news commentators and presenters speaking in the studio. The continuous flow of disaster news enabled participants to visualise the disaster and evaluate live news as highly credible. As one participant, Ryota, explains:

“I found it reliable because there was a real-time video stream as soon as the earthquake happened. One good thing was that close, real-time information was continuously appearing.”ʼ17

These examples suggest that there was no suspicion of immediate live TV broadcast of the disaster, and no particular suspicion of newspaper and other media platforms at that time. Participants’ scepticism in news arose later, in the aftermath of the 3.11 nuclear disaster, including suspicion of government statements in TV broadcasts and print publications. Further, participants’ confidence in news and the high levels of trust come from the notion that the moving image and audio-visual material show actual information through the simultaneous reception of the same news and the sense of witnessing the disaster as it happened.


Growing scepticism and selective media use

Following the 3.11 nuclear disaster, participants report a lack of trust in television and/or newspaper reports, stemming from the overall perception that the nuclear disaster was poorly covered and that unbalanced, partial, inconsistent reports and media censorship, were caused by the media’s affiliations with the government and kisha clubs. Indeed, the reporting, or lack thereof, of the nuclear meltdown was the main trigger for a strong distrust towards mass media including NHK. Participants mainly refer to the lack of impartial coverage of the nuclear disaster, the poorly communicated information on levels of radiation, the censoring of information on the nuclear meltdown, and the propaganda that the situation is under control. For example, Atsushi, who was following TV news immediately after the great earthquake and tsunami, explains that it was hard for him to understand the news after the nuclear disaster: “I watched TV, but I didn’t understand anything. It has been explained, but with a long explanation, I didn’t understand the meaning at all…”18

While participants generally agree that television delivered useful, real-time, factual information on the earthquake and tsunami, their suspicions arose after the 3.11 nuclear disaster. Kenjiro used television as his primary source of news on the 3.11 disaster, perceiving NHK as extremely useful for its instant and live updates in the immediate aftermath of earthquake and tsunami. However, after the explosion at the nuclear plant, Kenjiro complemented television watching with internet and international media sources, because he felt that Japanese mass media was hiding critical information on the radiation levels and overall risks of the nuclear disaster:

In the foreign media there was like a map showing where radioactive substances would be dispersed given the wind direction, but I wonder why Japanese media did not do the same. I think I lost confidence in Japanese media after that. Information was given in foreign media… Japanese media did not release information… everyone was really worried.19

Although Kenjiro felt that NHK was neutral in covering the necessary information on the earthquake and tsunami, without the sensationalist dimension found on some commercial TV stations, he is convinced that the Japanese mass media, including NHK, did not utilise the SPEEDI system20 to release accurate data on radiation levels, which could help people evacuate to safe areas. He concludes that the Japanese mass media failed to release critical data and fulfil their responsibility to provide detailed, unbiased and independent coverage of the disaster. This made him question its reliability and turn to alternative sources—international media and the internet:

The power of the state suppresses mass media …, media is being watched carefully. If you report on something unwanted, you will be dismissed. There is no independence, which is dangerous.21

Scepticism towards mediated information and gradual loss of trust and growing disappointment in Japanese mass media was also voiced by other participants, who felt that accurate and critical information was not adequately communicated to the public. Negative responses towards repetitive and biased coverage of the disaster led to participants’ perception of mass media as only moderately reliable. Kensuke, who was following TV news from the start of the triple disaster, became sceptical of the mass media, due to repetitive and biased coverage:

I didn’t trust information about the nuclear power plant. It seemed to be controlled. The bad thing was…there was a lot of anxiety about the nuclear plant, and I don’t know which side of the story I received… (continues in English) (they exaggerated news on nuclear disaster, treating nuclear disaster as a political issue… I feel they didn’t show the truth; the mass media has a position like left and right wing … mass media belongs to the government side, it shows good news, people doing their job).22

Consequently, participants’ shifting perceptions of media credibility led to changing media use with utilisation of online media sources to complement mass media use due to uncertainty and gradual loss of trust in mass media.

The changing role of social media in the context of the 3.11 disaster is seen in its potential to provide new visual representations of the calamitous national disaster, with user-generated videos and images that could help viewers gain alternative knowledge of events as they unfold. In some cases, growing distrust towards mass media institutions resulted in higher social trust and/or increasing utilisation of different (online) sources which can provide critical information on radiation or nuclear disaster not provided by mass media. In such an environment, where participants feel that they cannot rely on mass media sources, especially at the time of the 3.11 nuclear disaster, social media provided some with an alternative channel which offered multiple views and perspectives on matters of life and death. In this sense, participants like Atsushi, perceive social media and the internet as a vital tool for safety and security. He notes that: “At that time, there was Facebook and it was really useful.23

This notion of social media as alternative source of information is especially prominent in Hideki’s reference to 2channel,24 an online bulletin-board service, which helped him evaluate the accuracy of local information by comparing other users’ comments and reactions, as they offer a broad range of alternatives and views about his local community in Fukushima:

Many people have comments about the people of Fukushima prefecture. They had comments which never appeared in the news, such as that people in Fukushima are exposed to radiation every day and that the food there is contaminated and cannot be eaten…That was what other people were thinking… I used 2channel to find out what other people think.25

Takuya started utilising Facebook to circulate information on radiation levels in his hometown in Saitama, a city located about 18 miles north of central Tokyo, that he measured himself with a Geiger counter. He says that Japanese mass media is biased and strongly linked to political parties and sponsored by advertising agencies, which significantly affects its impartiality and the neutrality of its content. Therefore, Takuya found it necessary to check information on different sources and decide which is credible, as he notes: “There is nothing that can be done.”26 This phrase “shōganai,” was used by another participant. Daichi, who felt sceptical about the news in media after the nuclear explosion:

TV was the most…I watched TV all the time. I was a bit suspicious, in particular, I was thinking whether the (situation in) Fukushima nuclear power plant was true. I didn’t really know if what was said on TV was true, I didn’t know if it was safe, if I needed to evacuate or if I shouldn’t go outside.”27

For Daichi, the most significant impact of mass media (particularly TV) was its unbalanced coverage of the disaster, which he found to be overwhelming, saying that he could not have a calm attitude towards media TV broadcast of the disaster, but like Takuya concluded that nothing could be done about it:

At that time, because I wasn’t calm, I couldn’t take a calm attitude towards the media. I watched TV, shocked, and there was nothing much to look at…There’s nothing that can be done about the media.”28

The phrase “shōganai” reflects the view that Japanese mass media is unlikely to re-think the focus of reporting and broadcast and provide fair and balanced coverage, which is free of government and corporate (TEPCO) influence, especially in a time of disaster when there is much negative content. The use of shōganai indicates that Takuya and Daichi resigned themselves to the limitations of traditional mass media, and that making radical changes in their media consumption patterns is beyond their control. However, the following section offers personal accounts of media utilization and opinions across wide range of age groups, as an evidence of progressive changes in the traditionally established patterns of media use in the aftermath of 3.11.


Building trust through inter-media use

The changing levels of trust in mass media and general scepticism concerning news in the wake of the nuclear disaster had significant implications for the participants’ approach to media use and reliance on media. Within Japan’s broader mediascape, a new inter-media environment emerged in the aftermath of the 3.11 disaster. Inter-mediality is defined as the interconnectedness of social media and traditional mass media, in which their role and influence develop in a complementary manner (Endo, 2013, p. 5). Inter-media use among participants in a wide range of age groups, from their 20s to their 50s, was caused by participants’ sceptical attitude towards the credibility of mass media and online media, as they incorporated both traditional and social media to evaluate news content and develop independent judgment. Within this new inter-media environment, the generational divide is gradually decreasing, as younger participants in their 20s and 30s increasingly migrate to new digital platforms for news, and older participants in their 40s and 50s slowly gravitate to online media as a back-up and additional source of news.

The first significant change in participants media use triggered by the 3.11 disaster is the reliance on cross-media use or combination of older and newer media for better evaluation of credibility, accuracy and up-to-date information. A minority of participants who find social media to be moderately credible are those who used social media as their primary source of news during 3.11, for real-time updates and facts or for checking on what their friends were talking about, to verify credibility of information. For example, besides watching television at work immediately after the quake, Toshi (age group 20-29) utilised a variety of official sources on Twitter. As he did not have a TV at home, Toshi accessed breaking news and mass media reports on the earthquake on Twitter, for its immediate and real-time nature and ability to provide instant updates and deliver accurate reports on earthquake intensity and aftershocks. Reflecting on 3.11, Toshi explains that he only trusted immediate, real-time reports on earthquake and tsunami, which he accessed on Twitter. He noticed changes in the way he used Twitter to continuously access updates and news from trusted news media sources on earthquake intensity, aftershocks and other critical information:

Twitter use, as I thought, has increased, and I looked at it for a long time…because it is fast and information immediately comes in…When the earthquake happened, I immediately looked at Twitter and saw that the earthquake was at that seismic intensity and that something absolutely terrible had happened…29

Toshi relied on cross-media use to access credible and verified information and facts about the earthquake, which could help him realise the severity of the disaster, indicating new media trends in Japan, as mass media use extended to digital platforms. Similarly, Hideki (male, 20-29), who was in Fukushima at the time of 3.11, started checking YouTube for real-time footage posted by other users, useful for understanding the situation and providing alternative sources of information on the complex disaster. Hideki positively acknowledges the real-time feature of this social media platform:

I started using YouTube videos to sort out what happened at that time. Since many people took videos with cameras from various places, I could find out what I did not know, so I started watching videos on YouTube. I think social media is really useful…After all, I think it is useful because we could receive information from social media when the TV station was damaged and couldn’t broadcast… 30

In this case, user-generated and real-time videos of the disaster coming from “back-up” sources (other social media users) helped Hideki gain alternative information on the disaster and evaluate accuracy by comparing different sources. Furthermore, these unofficial communication channels, regarded as “backchannels” (Sutton et al., 2008, p. 625) served as a vital source of information, rather than merely an alternative source of information, for participants who could not access TV news.

However, the need for information was not the only reason for participants’ reliance on online sources. I have argued elsewhere that, in the context of the 3.11 disaster, social media platforms served as a space where individuals can experience and express closeness in time of crisis, creating and maintaining new forms of affective communities in digital space through a combination of user consumption and production of media content (see Petrovic, 2019, p. 92). Another reason for participants’ reliance on social media, which emerged from interviews, is the familiarity of sources in online and offline space. Participants explain that they put their trust in the comments and feedback provided by their friends, or same-community users, as a guide to what is relevant and credible. People believe that interactivity around information facilitates their understanding of the reliability of stories, as others offer feedback and alternatives (Newman & Fletcher, 2017). The discussion and sharing of news among friends or more generally among other social media users’ help participants understand the severity of the situation and realise whether the information is a fact or a rumour. After watching dramatic news reports, due to information overload, participants explained that they found it necessary to confirm what they had seen on television with others, and share information about earthquake intensity, the scope of the disaster and many other concerns. This could help them cope with uncertainty and anxiety. For example, Mayumi (30-39) recalls that she discussed the news from TV with friends and family, to understand the complexity of the disaster:

Even if it was said to be confusing, earthquake, tsunami, nuclear power plant… the opinion of friends and family was very valuable… well, the next week it was really quite difficult (to watch), just watching that, but because there was no other choice I turned on the TV and watched it.”ʼʼ31

Most participants who were living in Tokyo at the time of 3.11 felt that Tokyo was in danger of being directly affected by radiation. Furthermore, the safety of food and water became real issues for Tokyo residents with the passage of time and concerns about radiation. All participants note that immediately after watching the news about the nuclear plant, they discussed the information they gathered from the media, either among family, friends and neighbours or in the digital community of users who follow the same news or join the same online groups, as a guide to establish reliable information. The main concerns discussed in online or offline space were related to the nuclear plant: the seriousness of the disaster, the location of safe zones, radiation effects, and the safety of food and water due to radiation. When I asked Ryota (male, 50-59) whether he discussed disaster news with friends and others, he explained:

We talked about the damage, and whether we could help in any way, and how the nuclear disaster would end… and because there was a story on radiation, where should we go and which food and vegetables are unsafe…32

Similarly, Saki (30-39) explains that even though she did not join any online groups or post information on social media, she was actively involved in a discussion with friends and family about the rumours and contradictory information on radiation effects they heard on TV:

“We talked about the accuracy of information and what to believe. In particular, information about the radiation is completely different depending on the medium and each day. I think about this even today. After all, I think it is controlled and that someone controls it. Especially TV…”33

Another participant, Hana (40-49), who was in Osaka, talked to her friends from Malaysia who followed the same broadcast, discussing the difference between international and Japanese mass media coverage. After that discussion, Hana found it challenging to decide which coverage was more reliable:

At that time, a friend living in Malaysia told me that the way of reporting is very different in Japan and overseas. In Japan, it is fragmented due to such damage, but there is no such thing abroad, it is quite different…I wonder which one is better…34

These participants’ responses indicate that they turned to their friends, family or community of media users to establish what news is reliable and relevant. This demonstrates how discussing information with their immediate community of audience members or social media users contributed to the formulation of perceptions and evaluation of media credibility.

In the context of 3.11, participants conclude that trust comes from comparing multiple sources in the emerging inter-media environment and relying on personal judgment to determine its credibility. This indicates that the complexity of the 3.11 disaster triggered a combined media use in the form of inter-media, integrating both old and new media technologies to critically analyse and evaluate news content and develop independent judgment. These findings suggest an overall understanding that television is more professional and competent than online media in delivering accurate and reliable news, as participants tend to seek information from official and checked sources, still having confidence in the professional integrity of journalism and live broadcasts above the random sources and unregulated flow of information on social media. At the same time, findings of the study show that in the inter-media environment that emerged with the 3.11 disaster, the interplay of traditional mass media and online media spheres facilitates the evaluation of media credibility and development of personal opinion.


Present-day notions of trust in media

The 3.11 disaster altered some participants’ views towards media and government institutions, changing perceptions of media credibility, which consequently led to changes in media use, mainly concerning the inclusion of online media, social media and news websites within one’s media routine. Sixteen participants recall using online media, social media or news websites, during and shortly after the 3.11 disaster. Interviews show a significant increase in participants who use online media, from 16 to 31, thereby showing that at the time of interviews, six years after the 3.11 disaster, online media, social media and news websites were afforded a similar level of importance as traditional mass media in participants’ everyday media use.

Familiarity with the source is an essential factor in how respondents perceive the credibility of online media. Post 3.11, participants still tend to communicate with friends and people they already know, which gives them more confidence to regard the information that comes from familiar sources as credible. As one of the lessons learned from the 3.11 disaster, participants explain they became more cautious when accessing information posted by unknown sources and random individuals, as they perceived it as running a higher risk of being misinformation, a poor-quality message or fake news. For example, discussing his post 3.11 media orientation and news consumption, Takashi (age group 20-29) explains that if he is not familiar with the person who posted information, he cannot find it credible, because there is a risk of misinformation or rumours. He goes on to explain that:

Since there are times when I don’t know the source on social media, it might be a rumour On mass media, I try only to listen to facts.35

Similarly, Hiroshi (30-39) who often uses Twitter, tend to communicate with people he already knows, which gives him more confidence to regard the information that comes from familiar sources, or in the case of his explanation below, Twitter influencers, as credible to some extent:

There are many people on Twitter. There are some you can trust, and others that you definitely cannot. Some of them are acting as influencers, and what they say and the things they introduce, they’ve checked them out to a certain extent, so they have a track record. Rather than saying whether I can trust Twitter or not, there are people whom I can trust, so Twitter is suitable for making direct contact with them.36

Therefore, Hiroshi and Takashi’s responses indicate that reliability depends not on the medium itself, but on the source. For example, familiarity with the source leads to credibility, in the case of family and friends. Sources of information that have a “track record” (jisseki) or that are “factual” (jijitsu) are also considered trustworthy.

Social media is still perceived as less credible than mass media, without significant changes in participants’ levels of trust since the 3.11 disaster. Low trust in social media still comes from a perception of biased, incomplete, misleading or inaccurate information, caused by its unregulated flow of information, immediacy and unchecked sources. Although many believe that social media can to some extent overcome or complement mass media shortcomings, social media is still seen as less credible than television and newspapers. The minority of participants (three) who still turn to TV as their only source of news, refer to the habitual use and familiarity of an established pattern of television watching.

As mentioned earlier in the article, Kenjiro (50-59) believes there is a strong link between Japanese mass media and the government and maintains that greater independence in reporting is essential. Due to the poor television coverage of the 3.11 nuclear disaster, he said he lost trust in Japanese mass media, including NHK and commercial broadcasters. However, years after the disaster, because of his long-established habit of watching television, Kenjiro still perceives it is the most reliable medium for news. He especially credits NHK for its factual reports, but also mentions that there are times when some issues and events are not reported:

TV watching has become a habit because the latest news is delivered at a fixed time. I don’t think that is all, but I trust NHK to some extent. However, I think there are times when some things are not reported.37

One of the rare younger participants who choose mass media forms over social media, like Michiko (female, 20-29) and Miyuki (female, 20-29) both make a note that their perception of traditional mass media (television and newspaper) as credible, comes from habitual use:

Miyuki: “I’ve watched it (TV) ever since I was little, so there is no need to doubt it.”38

Michiko: “I think newspaper is the most reliable media. When I was a child, I think my parents have taught me to read newspapers, and reading newspaper became ordinary…39

These comments indicate that changing media habits in terms of incorporating social media in their accustomed media environment becomes difficult for three participants whose media habits still tied to traditional media and news that comes on TV at a scheduled time, or gets delivered directly to their home.

Most participants seem to agree that the major media outlets, such as NHK television news and national dailies such as the Asahi and Yomiuri, separate fact from fiction, but there are mixed opinions about whether such outlets are critical and transparent enough due to their tight link with political parties. When discussing their preference for online and international media sources, Toshi (male, 20-29), Kaori (female, 50-59) and Haruna (50-59) refer to a lack of critical coverage and transparency, as the primary reason for not trusting these sources. One of their comments was:

Toshi: “It is difficult…I don’t trust it at all. I think that Japanese media has not done much of the critical articles in journalism, and I know the world’s press ranking, I know it is low in Japan…40

After the nuclear disaster, Atsushi (male, 40-49) started doubting news from mass media, realising it is biased and controlled, without providing alternative views and reliable information. For Atsushi, media bias that emerged post 3.11 nuclear disaster is the main reason for his distrust in mass media or as he explicitly says a few times in the interview: “I hardly ever watch TV or read newspapers because it is full of lies!41

When it comes to media bias, the problem of political and institutional bias comes into consideration when discussing the credibility of Japanese mass media. Another participant, Wataru (male, 40-49), explains that his main decision to cancel his subscription to the Asahi and Yomiuri Shimbun comes from the view that major Japanese newspapers are tightly linked with political parties, and that this has significantly affected the coverage of 3.11 nuclear disaster.

Although there is a consensus that mass media forms provide verified and general information, online media sources are also thought to offer different perspectives on events, thereby suggesting that trust comes from a combination of multiple sources. One participant, Mei (female, 20-29), talks about how she views the information provided by mass media and online media as being different. She explains that mass media delivers official information at the macro level, while online media, especially social media, offers individual perspectives and opinions, which she sees as micro-level information. Mei stresses the importance of comparing both sources to see different viewpoints. Although she thinks Japanese mass media is not biased, she does say that it is essential to decide for yourself which source you will trust. In a similar way, Sana (female, 20-29) drew this comparison to highlight the importance of personal judgement in evaluating news content and the credibility of sources:

After all, I think that mass media have high reliability because many people put effort into it and information is organised to some extent. On the other hand, because there are all kinds of people put together, information on social media is fast, but I think that it is necessary to judge whether it is reliable information by yourself.42

In this way, participants’ comments suggest gradual changes in their media usage patterns, but more importantly, development in communication and civil society in Japan, where the user feels increasingly empowered to question, challenge and confirm the credibility from multiple media forms and sources. This opposes to the previously discussed notion of “shōganai,” as participants refuse to accept traditional modes of communication as their sole source of news and favour sifting through and evaluating information from diverse platforms and relying on critical thinking and personal judgement.

Six years on from the 3.11 disaster,43 fewer than ten percent of those interviewed rely on online and/or social media as a news source and trust them to deliver reliable and quality news. This group of participants in their 30s or 40s use curated (matome) websites as their primary source of news because they provide both sides of any issue, and rarely follow news on traditional mass media, due to the view that the information is biased and only partially reliable. Participants generally agree that the reliability depends on the source, especially when it comes to online media, and they make a clear distinction between random individual posts on social media platforms and news circulated on curated websites like Yahoo News and NewsPicks. Curated news websites aggregate top news stories from major media outlets, providing in-depth information and allowing users to leave comments on news articles.

Interviews show that more trust is placed in news portals and curated (matome) websites than on social media, as all 13 participants who use them express high or partial trust and confidence, due to an overall feeling that the adopted news content from major news outlets is more credible than the individually posted information. Figures also show that low credibility is registered only among participants who use social media, with 18 of them who perceive social media as not credible at all and 6 participants who partially trust it. Within the broad category of online media, curated (matome) websites are perceived as more trustworthy than social media platforms, because they enable users to express their opinions, provide additional information, and think about each issue through comments provided by other users, which significantly contributes to the information validation process. Eiji (male, 30-39) uses both social media (Facebook) and news websites, but for credible news, he entirely relies on curated (matome) websites, particularly NewsPicks.44 The main reason behind his preference for NewsPicks is the ability it affords him to see news of his interest in one place, but more importantly to read other users’ comments on articles, which facilitate Eiji’s judgment of whether the news is credible.

Similarly, Naoko (female, 30-39) first referred to NewsPicks when explaining which media form she enjoys the most: “There is NewsPicks, where there is various news and where various people and experts comment on news… I think that is very interesting, so I read the news.”45

She continues to explain that she regularly uses NewsPicks, because she can see the comments of other people who frequently access news of similar interest, which helps her realise there are different perspectives on the story:

Since it sometimes happens that I don’t know which information and news alone is right on NewsPicks, it is fun to be able to see news and how various people are watching it.46

In other words, Naoko checks NewsPicks not only for its news content, but to read other users’ comments and feedback on the news and compare information to decide what is reliable. The awareness of other users who share the same present and experience of the 3.11 disaster gives the user more confidence that rumours and fake news will be quickly corrected, and in the veracity of stories checked through other users’ feedback and comments. More importantly, the interactive nature of online news portals enables participants to gain more comprehensive experience and general perception of news, drawing on other users’ insights and different viewpoints to form their own opinion and evaluate media credibility. This suggests that aligning with a community of users who comment on curated news significantly contributes to their higher evaluation of its credibility. Furthermore, the increasing use of and reliance on digital news websites, complementing or coexisting with traditional mass media in inter-media environment which emerged with the 3.11 disaster, highlights that the internet in post-3.11 Japan, in addition to traditional mass media, plays a significant role in shaping public opinion.

Among thirteen participants who partially trust online media, ten of them belong to the 40–49 and 50–59 age groups and believe they can trust curated (matome) websites and get quick updates on information in their areas of interest. This group of participants still uses traditional mass media such as television or printed newspapers as a part of their media routine, complementing it with online news sources. When I asked Ryota (male, 50-59) to talk about his media use today and main source of information, he explained: “I use internet as much as TV. After watching it (news) on TV, I often check it again on the internet.47 He concludes that the careful selection of news is critical, which clearly explains why he uses both the Internet and television in his regular media routine. Participants’ combined media use is driven by the notion that they cannot rely on any medium entirely, but through comparing traditional and new digital sources, they can receive different perspectives and evaluate medium credibility.

Comparatively, participants’ low trust in online media mainly comes from the participants’ general view that information on social media comes from different individual sources, often agenda driven, biased with personal feelings and sometimes too opinionated to be perceived as credible. Figures also show that the age of participants with low levels of trust in social media ranges from the 20s to the 50s. Thus, findings suggest there is a general awareness among participants that social media is not a credible news source.



Based on in-depth interviews, this article aimed to examine how Japanese media users perceive media credibility within the new inter-media environment that emerged in the aftermath of the 3.11 disaster. As my study demonstrates, where online and traditional modes of communication converge and intersect, individual notions of trust guide their engagement with different media platforms and information sources. This was highlighted as individuals began to question the credibility of television news coverage of the disaster amidst claims of bias and lack of critical reporting. While 26 participants mainly used television immediately after the earthquake and tsunami, sixteen people turned to online media in the wake of disaster, utilising different social media platforms or/and curated matome websites in combination with TV to search for supplementary information, and found the new media space also offered alternative sources of knowledge on the 3.11 nuclear disaster. Trust in online media comes from the new visuality facilitated by user-generated images and real-time videos of the disaster, which helped participants gain alternative knowledge on the disaster, and a means of comparing different media sources. Whereas trust in the television image comes from habitual engagement with the NHK live news in a time of emergency, with 26 participants describing television as highly or partially credible, confidence in online media stems from familiarity with its sources. That is, participants explain they put their trust in the comments and feedback provided by their family, friends, or same-community users, as a guide to what is relevant and credible. However, the number of participants who trust online media is comparably low, with only three participants who explain they find social media or news websites to be credible source of news.

The 3.11 disaster exposed many issues concerning Japanese mass media: bias, lack of investigative reporting (Gill et al., 2013; Kingston, 2012; McNeill, 2014), the cartelised media system (Freeman, 2000) and others. Participants’ responses show that the 3.11 disaster did not trigger radical changes in their media use, as the increasing use of online sources, have not replaced the traditional mass media. Even though recent statistics show low levels of trust in media institutions in Japan (Edelman Trust Barometer Report 2018), participants trust television more than online media due to belief in the authenticity of traditional news formats. High levels of trust and reliance on television come from the familiarity and habit of television watching, and the sense of liveness and immediacy provided by NHK. This is further buoyed by confidence in professionally produced and regulated news, fact-checking and sourcing, as opposed to the unregulated flow of information on social media. However, in a time of national emergency and mediatised disaster when bias and lack of critical reporting are highlighted, participants turn to online media in search of diverse perspectives and alternative views. In these more volatile times, but also as time calms a bit post-3.11 disaster, these new media patterns remain intact as participants actively turn to a combination of older and newer media platforms and demonstrate personalised media use. In this study, as one of the main effects of the “triple” disaster on overall perceptions of media credibility, we see Japanese media users who are no longer confined to traditional media systems, but are predominantly active, media-literate, inquisitive, and critical media consumers, who are motivated to use new digital media, search for news and navigate their way through complex media environment. They rely on personal judgment in alignment with a familiar community of audience and users to evaluate media credibility. This has implications for our understanding of “trust” in news sources in the inter-media environment. I argue that trust comes from combined media use, in other words, the interplay of traditional and new modes of communication which facilitate an individual’s evaluation of media credibility and guide his/her media engagement.

The participants’ combined media use is almost evenly spread across four different age groups, suggesting that people of varying ages (20–59) are slowly embracing and adjusting to the new inter-media environment. Japanese media society is moving towards more community-oriented online communication, where the digital divide between older and younger generations slowly decreases. Since 3.11, younger generations—those in their 20s and 30s—have migrated to digital platforms and increasingly come to use online sources, while older generations—aged 40–49 and 50–59—recognised the significance and affordances of different online media, mainly matome websites and social media platforms, which they slowly incorporated into their media routine as one of the news sources. The increasing use of and confidence in matome websites, such as NewsPicks and YahooNews, show that the internet in Japan, in addition to traditional mass media, plays a significant role in shaping public opinion. The examples of the changing dominance of traditional mass media and new media competition, presented in this paper, is an evidence of a general change in Japan, where after 3.11 people of different age groups utilise new platforms to evaluate traditional media sources, as a guidance for challenging media credibility. With the rise of online media and the individual’s routine exposure to an abundance of opinions and information, the inter-media environment is becoming more complex and less controllable, in terms of its reliability and transparency of sources. Participants’ experiences with using media in a disaster context demonstrate a great need for balanced reporting on a disaster, which in their opinion should be informational, affective, and more critical, to increase levels of trust in mass media. Considering that the mass media cross-ownership and lack of diversity in reporting made a significant impact on national media framing of 3.11 disaster and public perceptions of media credibility, it would be worth further unpacking individual perceptions of the credibility of different Japanese broadcasters, public and commercial, and newspapers (local, regional, national). This could be one avenue for further research.

Moving forward, having in mind the impact of perceptions of media credibility on individuals’ media habits, our aim should be to examine how, alongside rapid changes in new media technologies and developments in the interplay of old and new media forms, both online and traditional mass media will evolve and reshape news habits and attitudes and contribute to disaster communication.



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1In a survey conducted by Nomura Research Institute in 2011, the majority of respondents (80.5 percent) found NHK television to be the most reliable source of information after the earthquake (Jung, 2012).

2TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.): Japanese electric utility holding company that operates the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. TEPCO bears the primary responsibility for the incompetent handling of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, which happened on 11 March 2011, due to its failure to meet basic safety requirements in risk assessment.

3Also known as “information cartels” (Freeman, 2000), because of the cartelisation process that results from the institutionalisation of the close relationship between official news sources and reporters, kisha clubs are the primary mechanism for news gathering in Japan. They are described as an institution that contributes to a deficit of critical reporting (Kuga, 2016) by controlling and regulating the information flow.

4The study conceptualises the 3.11 disaster as three interrelated events: earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. It differentiates between three main phases of the 3.11 disaster for the purposes of analysis: the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami (11 March 2011), the immediate aftermath of nuclear explosion (12 and 14 March 2011) and the timing of the interviews in the period August–December 2017, which I refer to below as “present day,” or six years after the immediate aftermath.

5The fieldwork extended from August to December 2017

6Statistics Bureau of Japan, Statistical Handbook of Japan, 2019. Accessed on 25th March 2020.

7All names of participants cited in this paper are pseudonyms.

8はじめにNHKをつけてるなんか少なくとも僕の習慣ではあって、地震があったらNHKそれは一つの習慣になって、たぶん多くの日本人はその習慣を持ってるん?じゃないか、とりあえずNHK。All translations are the author’s except where noted.


10もちろん、Facebookは情報発信するけど、Facebookこそ正しい情報かどうかわからない、各個人が書いて発しているから。連絡でもツールとしていい、だけど、情報発信としては適切かどうかわからない。だから、テレビはある程度… 一応ルールに基づいた情報発信されているもので、ああいう場合では多分信頼できたとそれしか信じることができない



13個人の意見が山ほどのかってて色んな立場の人が違った意見でいうから、それがいいとこあるけど、整理がつかなくなっちゃうので、過激な意見もすごく多くて言い過ぎて …





18テレビは見てたけど全然わからなかった。説明してるけど 、長い説明をしながら全く意味が分からない。

19そこで外国のメディアにはあのう… 風向きで放射線物質の飛んでる… こう予想図みたるのが出てるのに、どうしての日本のメディアはあれを出さないのか。あとに、日本のメディアに信頼を失ったと思います。外国のメディアは出してる情報…日本のメディアは出してない情報… 皆本当に不安でした。

20A computer system utilised during a nuclear disaster to predict dispersions of radioactive substances and help people evacuate to safe areas. The government and mass media in Japan did not make use of SPEEDI, which consequently led to an absence of accurate information available to the public and people evacuating to places with high levels of radiation.

21マスメディアは国家権力によって抑えられっちゃう… だいぶそのコントロールされているよりは睨まれている。望まないような報道すると、首切られるよね。独立性はないよね。それは非常に危ないですよね。


23その時に、Facebook があったから、すごいに役に立って。

242channel (Japanese: 2ちゃんねる) is an anonymous online Japanese textboard community that was established in 1999.







31わかりにくいといわれても私たちも地震、津波、原発… 友人と家族すごく貴重の意見として… 次の週にさすがすごいつらくなってきたっていうか、そればかりを見てて、ほかのチョイスがなかったので、テレビつけるそれみたいな、 …

32被害の状況だったりとか、なにかサポートができないだろうかとか、発電所の話はどうやって結末… どこに逃げたらいいのか、あとは放射線の話があったので、どこの食べ物、野菜はだめだ…








40難しいとこです、僕はあまり信用しない… そのジャーナリズムとかメディアで日本のメディアってあまりその批判的な記事をちゃんと出来ていないと思ってて、その世界の報道ランキングってあるじゃないですか、知っています、日本で低いんですよ.



43The interviews with participants were conducted in the period August–December 2017

44NewsPicks was launched in Japan in 2013 as a social media outlet, created with a subscription-based model, featuring reporting from its own and Japanese media outlets, as well as international publications. As a curated news platform, NewsPicks allows users to gather news related to the topics of their interest and share articles along with their opinions, which are followed by discussion threads. One of the unique features of NewsPicks is that the user cannot interact with other users or reply to their comments but can only comment on a news article. In this way, each article has a stream of thoughts and immediate reactions of everyone who is reading the news story, which provides a variety of different opinions




June 11, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , , | Leave a comment

Reflections on the TEPCO Trial: Prosecution and Acquittal after Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown

Abstract: This article focuses on the criminal justice consequences of the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima that was precipitated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Through a process of “mandatory prosecution” initiated by Japan’s unique Prosecution Review Commissions, three executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Company were charged with criminal negligence in 2015-2016. They were acquitted at trial in 2019 when the Tokyo District Court concluded there was insufficient evidence to convict. Following this verdict, Japanese prosecutors essentially said “we told you so – these cases should not have been prosecuted.” But we argue that a courtroom loss does not mean that the case should never have been brought, for the TEPCO trial and the criminal process that preceded it performed some welcome functions. Most notably, this criminal case revealed many facts that were previously unknown, concealed, or denied, and it clarified the truth about the Fukushima meltdown by exposing some of TEPCO’s claims as nonsense. At the same time, this case study illustrates the limits of the criminal sanction and the difficulty of controlling corporate crime in the modern world.

Key Words: Fukushima, criminal negligence, white-collar crime, Prosecution Review Commissions, mandatory prosecution, Japanese criminal justice


The scale of the tsunami far exceeded all previously held expectations and knowledge.”
Headline of “Important Report from TEPCO” (April 24, 2012)

“Who could they be kidding?… The Sanriku coast [in the Tohoku region of Japan] is famously like California: big earthquakes hit it often, hit it regularly, and hit it with massive tsunami.”

Harvard University Professor of Law J. Mark Ramseyer (2012)

On September 19, 2019, a panel of three professional judges in the Tokyo District Court acquitted three former executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The defendants were former chairman Katsumata Tsunehisa (79), and former vice presidents Takekuro Ichiro (73) and Muto Sakae (69), who shared responsibility for the company’s nuclear energy sector. They had been charged with criminal negligence1 for failing to prevent the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was precipitated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, which killed more than 18,000 people and forced 400,000 to evacuate their homes in order to escape the nuclear fallout (Hasegawa, 2013).2 

The 3/11 earthquake was the most powerful ever recorded in Japan, and it was the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record keeping started in 1900. The tsunami it precipitated reached heights up to 40 meters (130 feet), and in some places the colossal swell traveled at 700 kmh (435 mph) and surged 10 kilometers (6 miles) inland. The only nuclear accident as serious as the meltdowns at the Fukushima plant was the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine. But while the Fukushima triple-disaster was severe, it was not precipitated by a low-probability event. The 3/11 earthquake was a “high-probability event,” for massive earthquakes and tsunamis have been assaulting the northeastern coast of Japan for centuries – in 869, 1611, 1793, 1896, and 1933 (Ramseyer, 2012). The size of the tsunami in 2011 was almost the same as the one in 1933.

There have been many legal and political reactions to the meltdowns in Fukushima (Samuels, 2013; Aldrich, 2019). Japan stopped using nuclear power for much of 2011 and 2012, and its usage has remained low since then, though the administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo seems determined to restart many of the country’s reactors. More broadly, several countries, including Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Taiwan, suspended or ended their use of nuclear power, and China suspended its plan to expand its use of nuclear power for half a year. New nuclear safety laws were also established in Japan, China, and South Korea, though in most of East Asia, major changes in the field of nuclear power seem unlikely because of “nuclear power’s sunk-cost structure and embeddedness in national energy plans” (Fraser and Aldrich, 2019, p.58). As for administrative law, Japan’s lax regulatory system (Kingston, 2012) was reformed after 3/11, with the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) replaced by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). Government supervision of the nuclear industry was also transferred from the ministry responsible for promoting it (the Ministry of Economy, Trade, & Industry, or METI) to the Ministry of Environment (MOE), which might result in more emphasis on safety and less on profit and the production of power (time will tell). In civil law, about 30 collective actions have been filed against TEPCO and government officials, in addition to some 400 individual lawsuits filed nationwide by the victims of the Fukushima meltdown (Jobin, 2019, p.74). As of September 2019, eight of the collective actions had resulted in judgments – and all found TEPCO liable (Dooley, Yamamitsu, and Inoue, 2019).3

And then there is the legal process through which criminal sanctions can be imposed. Significant efforts were made to respond to the anti-social behavior of TEPCO executives and government officials by imposing punishment on those believed guilty of violating Japanese criminal law. The central question in this essay is this: what was the criminal process good for in the TEPCO case? We argue that, despite the acquittal of the TEPCO defendants, Japan’s criminal process did some good in this case, and that when it failed it did so in ways that are common in other systems of criminal justice. The latter claim will be no consolation to the victims and survivors of 3/11, but it does reflect how hard it is to hold corporations and their executives criminally accountable for the harms that they cause, not only in Japan but in all countries. While we focus on the limits of criminal law and criminal procedure in a case that may be the biggest crime in postwar Japanese history, our point applies more broadly, for in many societies white-collar crime is “the greatest crime problem of our age” (Coleman, 2002, p. xi).4

Our essay proceeds in three parts. Part one describes the complicated process of criminal prosecution through which charges were filed against the three TEPCO executives. This part of our story involves a uniquely Japanese institution called the Prosecution Review Commission (kensatsu shinsakai), which was reformed in 2009 to enable panels of 11 citizens to override the non-charge decisions of professional prosecutors. Part two analyzes the reasoning of the Tokyo District Court and describes some of the reactions to its decision to acquit the executives. Many Japanese were harshly critical of that decision, but Japanese prosecutors essentially said “we told you so” after the Court concluded there was insufficient evidence to convict. In our view, the verdicts in this case are troubling but unsurprising, for impunity is common both in white-collar crime cases and in cases of “mandatory prosecution” (kyosei kiso) initiated by Japan’s PRCs. Part three of this article concludes by suggesting some lessons to learn from the TEPCO trial. Foremost among them is how difficult it is for criminal law and the institutions of criminal justice to control the conduct of corporations and their agents.


I. Prosecution

A Timeline summarizing the main events leading to and resulting from the triple disaster of 3/11 can be found in the Appendix to this article. The timeline shows that the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 resembled large natural disasters that had occurred many times before on the northeastern coast of Japan. In this sense, the chain of events leading to 3/11 could be traced back centuries.5 But our summary focuses on a cascade of executive, engineering, and regulatory failures that occurred in the few decades preceding the Fukushima disaster (Synolakis and Kanoglu, 2015). The Union of Concerned Scientists has concluded that “there is plenty of blame to go around” for the Fukushima meltdown (Lochbaum et al, 2014, p.245), and some other analysts share this view (Jones, 2019).6 Among the key proximate causes are the following:

*There was too little attention paid to evidence of large tsunamis that had assaulted the northeastern coast of Japan in previous decades and centuries. This heedlessness was widespread: by TEPCO executives, by regulatory officials and other agents of the Japanese state, and by the mass media.

*There were inexplicably different design conditions in the nuclear power plants located near each other in northeastern Japan. The Fukushima plant design was especially deficient.

*There were major methodological mistakes in the hazard analysis that TEPCO conducted to calculate the maximum possible tsunami at the Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Plant.

*In the years preceding 3/11, TEPCO made false reports during government inspections of its nuclear plants more than 200 times, and it concealed numerous plant safety incidents as well.

*There were major weaknesses in the regulation of Japan’s nuclear energy industry.7

One question concerns what conduct leading to the Fukushima meltdown can be considered criminal. Although the answer is contested, we believe many people who should have been charged and convicted were not held criminally accountable for the enormous harms that they helped cause. In June 2012, 1324 residents of Fukushima filed a criminal complaint with the Fukushima District Prosecutors Office against 33 TEPCO executives and government officials (Yamaguchi and Muto, 2012). Fifteen months later, prosecutors in Tokyo announced that they would not charge any TEPCO executives because, in their view, there was little chance of conviction. Over the next few years, two different Prosecution Review Commissions would review and reverse this non-charge decision and institute mandatory prosecution against the three former executives who would later be acquitted. This section and the pre-3/11 part of the Timeline explain how this happened.



Ultimately, three of them would be indicted, after citizens on two Prosecution Review Commissions overruled the non-charge decisions of Japan’s professional prosecutors.

A criminal trial can only occur if someone is charged with a crime. In the modern world it is prosecutors who usually make charge decisions. Even in the United States where grand juries can issue indictments, they almost always do what the prosecutor wants: investigating only those whom the prosecutor wants investigated, and indicting only those whom the prosecutor wants indicted (Blumberg, 1979, p.139). In fact, American grand juries are so likely to do the prosecutor’s bidding that critics have said they will even “indict a ham sandwich” – if that is what the prosecutor desires (Heilbroner, 1990, p.245). Thus, in the US as in Japan and most other nations, the prosecutor is the main gatekeeper of the criminal justice system. In the TEPCO case, Japanese prosecutors tried to keep the gate to criminal trial closed, but two Prosecution Review Commissions (PRCs) pried it open by compelling the indictment of the former executives. This section explains how that happened.

Prosecution in Japan has long been characterized by three qualities (Johnson and Hirayama, 2019). First, prosecutors have such broad discretion that they may have more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other officials in the country. Second, prosecutors tend to exercise their discretion cautiously, by following a conservative charging policy which mandates that they charge a case only if it is all but certain to end in conviction. Third, the best-known results of Japan’s charging conservatism are a conviction rate that approaches 100 percent and an acquittal rate that is close to 0 (Johnson, 2002; Ramseyer and Rasmusen, 2001).

Japan’s conservative charging policy has several strengths. Most notably, it results in less use of imprisonment than do more aggressive charging policies in other democracies, most notably the United States. For progressives who are skeptical of the capacity of the criminal sanction to do good, this is a significant virtue (Packer, 1968). It is hard to say for sure, but Japan’s charging conservatism may also result in fewer wrongful convictions than more aggressive charging policies. Some critics contend that Japan’s high conviction rate results from an authoritarian approach to criminal justice in which too much power is vested in police and prosecutors and in which judges are too deferential to law enforcement’s interests. There are elements of truth in these criticisms, but one meaning of the country’s high conviction rate is that many criminal offenders who would be charged and convicted in other systems are never charged at all in Japan. In this sense, Japan’s cautious approach to charging cases is more protective of the rights and interests of criminal suspects than are prosecution systems in countries with lower conviction rates (Johnson, 2002, pp.237-242).

But Japan’s conservative charging policy also has several negative consequences. Some victims of crime feel abandoned or betrayed by prosecutors who do not charge the individual or organizational actors who have offended against them. There are relatively few criminal trials where guilt is seriously contested and where citizens can be instructed about law, government, and the duties of citizenship in the “classroom” of the courthouse (Tocqueville, 1835). When a contested trial does occur, it is difficult for some judges to remain neutral because issuing 98 or 99 convictions for every acquittal can numb their sensitivity to reasonable doubt. The supply of skilled and aggressive defense lawyering gets suppressed, for who wants to do criminal defense work when the chances of victory are so slim? The Japanese public loses some of the benefits of general deterrence that a more aggressive charging policy would generate. And in the thin layer of cases in which a crime is serious, the defendant denies guilt, and there is public pressure to produce a conviction, the risk of false confession rises, as does the risk of wrongful conviction (Johnson, 2002; Johnson, 2015).

In an effort to address some of the problems of prosecution, Prosecution Review Commissions were established in Japan in 1948, and their powers were strengthened by a legal reform that took effect in 2009 (Fukurai, 2011; Goodman, 2013). At present, there are 165 PRCs in Japan’s 50 district court jurisdictions. Each is composed of eleven citizens chosen randomly from local electoral rolls. If a prosecutor decides not to charge a case, a victim or suitable proxy can request that a PRC review the decision.8

PRCs were created during the postwar Occupation by adapting the American grand jury system to the Japanese context. In the 1930s, when Japan’s government became militaristic and fascistic, prosecutors frequently abused their powers by charging enemies and protecting allies and friends (Mitchell, 1992). Article 1 of the PRC Law of 1948 states that the main purpose of the PRC institution is to guarantee “proper and fair execution of the right of public action by reflecting the popular will,” and American officials in the Occupation described PRCs as a “safeguard against procurators who fail to prosecute cases” (West, 1992, p.694). The PRC Law left prosecutors’ decisions to charge a case unreviewable except by the courts. Most prosecutors believed this reform – a check on their non-charge decisions but no check on their decisions to charge – was more beneficial to their interests than an American-style grand jury would have been (Goodman, 2013).

A Prosecution Review Commission and an American grand jury share some similarities in form. Both rely on citizen oversight to check prosecutorial discretion, and both focus on charging decisions. But the two systems differ in function, with the American grand jury reviewing cases before an indictment is issued, and PRCs reviewing cases after a decision has been made not to charge. In most criminal justice systems, decisions not to charge are seldom subject to discussion or disapproval because the media and the public learn little about them (Davis, 1969; Bach, 2009, ch.3). In Japan, however, the possibility of review by a PRC means that prosecutors know a non-charge decision could be reviewed and (since the 2009 reform) reversed. It also means the public has a means of reviewing uncharged cases. If you believe prosecutors are inclined to protect their friends and allies, or if you think prosecutors are biased in favor of certain individuals or groups, then this form of lay participation may be a welcome development. The affirmative power to charge someone with a crime is enormous, but “the negative power to withhold prosecution may be even greater, because it is less protected against abuse” (Davis, 1969, p.188).

In the United States, there is no institution other than the media to review non-charge decisions, so a case that is not charged but should have been seldom received serious scrutiny. Moreover, in the United States, prosecutors have been so timorous about charging white-collar offenses and corporate crimes that one highly acclaimed book on the subject is called The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives (Eisinger, 2017). The title comes from a speech James Comey gave to prosecutors in 2002 in the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Manhattan, where Comey was the top prosecutor (in 2013 Comey became Director of the FBI; he was fired by President Donald Trump in 2017). After spending his first months as U.S. Attorney listening to career prosecutors and learning what kind of cases they were making, he gave a speech in the criminal division, where he asked “Who here has never had an acquittal or a hung jury?” Among the go-getters and resume-builders in his office, many hands went up, whereupon Comey congratulated them by saying “You are members of what we like to call the Chickenshit Club” (quoted in Eisinger, 2017, p.xiv). As Eisinger explains,

Prosecuting wrongdoers is an awesome responsibility, to be undertaken carefully and judiciously. But prosecutors – unlike other lawyers – are not simply advocates for one side. They are required to bring justice. They need to be righteous, not careerist. They should seek to right the biggest injustices, not go after the easiest targets. Victory in the courtroom should be a secondary concern, meaning that government lawyers should neither seek to win at all costs nor duck a valid case out of fear of losing. Federal prosecutors should not be judged on their trial record, whether they are criticized or what the political consequences might be of their prosecutions. Comey wanted his prosecutors to be bold, to reach and to aspire to great cases, no matter their difficulty” (Eisinger, 2017, pp.xiv-xv).

As it turns out, Comey’s speech came to be seen as feckless, and Comey himself joined this discreditable Club by failing to pursue many white-collar offenders when he was the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan (Eisinger, 2017, p.136). More broadly, despite widespread and serious malfeasance that led to the 2008 financial crisis, no top bankers from America’s biggest financial firms were prosecuted. The problem of impunity for white-collar criminals in the United States extends far beyond finance, to pharmaceutical companies, technology giants, automobile manufacturers, transnational corporations, and beyond. In short, the U.S. Department of Justice lacks the will and ability to prosecute business elites, and so do many other prosecutors’ offices in the United States (Garrett, 2014; Soltes, 2016) and the world (Bullough, 2019).

The problem of impunity through under-prosecution is one reason why countries such as Germany, Italy, and Sweden require prosecutors to file charges when an offense is made known. Their approach reflects a “principle of mandatory prosecution,” which can be contrasted with the “principle of discretionary prosecution” that prevails in Japan, the US, and South Korea, where prosecutors have no legal obligation to charge, regardless of the state of the evidence (Johnson, 2002, p.37). In the former countries, prosecutors are, by law and tradition, supposed to have no choice but to charge. But how often is the principle of mandatory prosecution evaded or ignored? After all, there is often a gap between law-on-the-books and law-in-action. In Germany, where the principle of legalitatsprinzip has long been established, prosecutors are frequently criticized for inappropriately dismissing charges or deferring prosecution, especially in cases of corporate crime (Boyne, 2017, p.139). The German and the American examples suggest that controlling the problem of under-prosecution – especially in cases of white-collar crime – is a formidable challenge in many countries and cultures. There is much evidence to support this view (Langer and Sklansky, 2017).9

As shown in Figure 1, Japan’s reformed Prosecution Review Commissions can begin an investigation of an un-charged case in two ways: by holding a hearing in response to a claim made by a crime victim or the victim’s proxy, or (through majority vote of its 11 members) by starting its own investigation. The PRC examines each case by questioning prosecutors, summoning witnesses, and asking for advice from legal advisors (shinsa hojoin and kojo bengoshi).10 Ultimately, a PRC arrives at one of three decisions, which it presents to prosecutors in writing: (a) non-indictment is proper (fukiso soto); (b) non-indictment is improper (fukiso futo); or (c) indictment is proper (kiso soto). For the first two outcomes a simple majority vote of 6 to 5 is required, while for the third a super-majority of 8 votes is necessary. Under the revised PRC Law, a PRC’s decision is binding only after it finds that “prosecution is appropriate” two times for the same case. Then one or more “designated attorneys” (shitei bengoshi) will be appointed by a court and will file criminal charges. The designated attorney (a private attorney recommended by the Bar) plays the role of prosecutor during the investigation, trial, and post-trial appeals. In English, cases charged in this way are called “compulsory prosecutions” or “mandatory prosecutions” (kyosei kiso). We employ the latter term.11



The reformed PRC Law seems good on paper, but what effects do PRCs actually have? Until 2009, PRC recommendations to prosecutors were advisory, not binding. Hence, prosecutors could ignore a recommendation – and frequently did (Johnson, 2002, pp.222-223). Since PRCs seldom prompted prosecutors to change their non-charge decisions, they were long considered “obscure” and “underutilized” features of Japanese criminal justice (West, 1992, p.694). This was also a motivation for reforming them.
In assessing PRC influence, some analysts focus narrowly on cases of mandatory prosecution (Goodman, 2013). These are, after all, the most visible consequence of PRC activity. Japan has had only nine cases of mandatory prosecution since the PRC reform took effect in 2009 (TEPCO being the most recent), for an average of less than one case per year. See Table 1. A total of 13 people were criminally charged in these nine cases, and only 2 were convicted, for a conviction rate of 15 percent.12 Some critics of mandatory prosecution claim this low conviction rate means PRCs are pushing for prosecution recklessly, with little regard for the harmful effects on defendants and the public interest (Goodman, 2013;
Sankei Shimbun, 2019; Tokyo Shimbun, 2019). Similarly, prosecutors believe the low conviction rate in cases of mandatory prosecution vindicates their original non-charge decisions. After the TEPCO executives were acquitted, prosecutors stressed that the court had agreed with their original conclusion that “the three couldn’t be indicted or held criminally responsible,” and they claimed the team of designated attorneys who had played the prosecutorial role at trial had “failed to present sufficient proof” to convict (quoted in The Mainichi, September 20, 2019). This “we told you so” attitude is supported by some scholarly observers too (Goodman, 2013; Goodman, 2019). After the TEPCO trial, Meiji University Professor Otsuka Hiroshi said “They’re cases where prosecutors have given up on bringing charges, so in a way it’s natural that a large number of them end in acquittals” (quoted in Dooley, Yamamitsu, and Inoue, 2019).

The sentences imposed on the two defendants who were convicted after mandatory prosecution suggest that PRCs do not always focus on the most serious cases. In one, the mayor of a small town in Tokushima prefecture (on the island of Shikoku) was convicted of assault and fined 9000 yen (about $90). In the other, a sixth-grade teacher in Nagano prefecture was convicted of “professional negligence resulting in injury” for causing a head injury to one of his students, by throwing him in a judo class. He was sentenced to one-year imprisonment, suspended for three years – so he was not incarcerated.13



Measured in the currency of criminal convictions and sanctions actually imposed, mandatory prosecutions seem to have had little effect. But the influence of Japan’s reformed PRCs should not be understated. For one thing, PRCs ratify the large majority of non-charge decisions that they review, thereby lending legitimacy to the practices of professional prosecutors. In 2011, for example, PRCs concluded that “non-prosecution is appropriate” (fukiso soto) in nearly 80 percent of the cases they reviewed. To Japanese prosecutors, this is a strong endorsement of their decision-making. Moreover, the possibility of mandatory prosecution through PRC review surely causes prosecutors to charge some cases more aggressively than they otherwise would, though the frequency of this “hidden impact” is impossible to measure (Hirayama, 2019). In addition, prosecutors sometimes reconsider a non-charge decision after a PRC “kick back” a case (kenshin bakku) by ruling that “prosecution is appropriate” or “non-prosecution is not appropriate.” In the half-century from 1949 to 2001, prosecutors decided to charge in about 7 percent of the cases (1144 out of 15,990 cases) in which PRCs had recommended once that they reconsider. From 2002 to 2017, this figure tripled to 22 percent (Hirayama, 2019), largely because concerns about victims’ rights made prosecutors more responsive to their interests and desires (Herber, 2019, ch.4).14 Thus, while PRCs seldom institute mandatory prosecution, when they ask prosecutors to reconsider a non-charge decision, prosecutors change it fairly frequently. Moreover, when PRCs agree with prosecutors about the propriety of a non-charge decision, they foster the perception that prosecutors are making good charge decisions. In short, while the evidence suggests that PRCs are passive toward prosecutors and powerful offenders in some cases, this institution does perform important political and criminological functions in Japanese society. One such function concerns accountability for white-collar crime. Five of the nine PRC-indicted cases (56 percent) and nine of the thirteen defendants (69 percent) subject to mandatory prosecution involved allegations of white-collar crime by governmental, political, or corporate elites.15

One key issue in the TEPCO case concerned the jurisdiction of prosecution. This is also a political issue in that it concerns “who gets what, when, and how” (Lasswell, 1936). How did such an important case involving victims in Fukushima – a prefecture that did not use a single kilowatt of power generated by TEPCO’s nuclear power plants – get handled by prosecutors in Tokyo and by two different Prosecution Review Commissions, each of which was composed of 11 residents of the nation’s capital, which is 150 miles south of the scene where the nuclear meltdowns occurred?16 The answer to this question requires an understanding of the way in which prosecution in Japan is organized (Johnson, 2002, ch.4, pp.119-143).

Japan’s procuracy is a bureaucracy which routinely employs a system of “hierarchical consultation and approval” (kessai) that is especially thoroughgoing in high-profile cases (Johnson, 2002, pp.128-132). In the TEPCO case, too, there were many discussions between prosecutors at various levels of this bureaucracy. Ultimately, decision-making authority was vested in the executive prosecutors in the Supreme Prosecutors Office in Tokyo,17 who seemed to believe that in moving the jurisdiction to Tokyo they could exercise greater control over the case by avoiding the involvement of Fukushima citizens in a PRC review, and who realized that if charges were filed, it would be better for the trial to take place in Tokyo, where court decisions in criminal cases have long been more pro-prosecutor than in other parts of the country (Johnson, 2002, pp.67-71).

Prosecutors provided several justifications for their decision to transfer jurisdiction to Tokyo, although the transfer of venue was only announced on September 9, 2013, just a few hours before the non-charge decision was issued by the Tokyo Prosecutors Office, not the Fukushima Prosecutors Office. Procedurally, prosecutors spoke with attorneys from Fukushima before the transfer decision was made, thereby lending a patina of procedural legitimacy to their decision. Practically, since the TEPCO executives lived in Tokyo, any trials that occurred would be more convenient there (there are also many more prosecutors in Tokyo than Fukushima). Historically, a similar transfer of jurisdiction had occurred in 2003, when cases involving allegations of criminal misconduct by TEPCO officials in Fukushima and Niigata had been transferred to the Tokyo District Court. And substantively, prosecutors stressed that shifting the jurisdiction to the capital would help preserve “the stability and unity of case dispositions” (Johnson and Hirayama, 2019).

In our view, these justifications are less persuasive than a more parsimonious and political explanation: executive prosecutors did not want the TEPCO case to be charged.18 In fact, prosecutors and police did not even employ the basic methods of “coercive investigation” (kyosei sosa) that are routinely used in serious cases – search warrants, arrests, interrogations, and the like – ostensibly because TEPCO officials were “cooperating” with the investigation (Herber, 2016). A political explanation for the transfer of jurisdiction is also favored by victims, survivors, and attorneys in Fukushima. One attorney said the decision to transfer jurisdiction to Tokyo was an “extremely dirty trick,” as was the decision to announce the non-prosecutions on the day after the announcement that Tokyo would host the 2020 Olympics, when that welcome news would dominate public discussions (Johnson and Hirayama, 2019). Criticism was common in the national media too, with analysts calling the transfer of jurisdiction and prosecutors’ non-charge decision “strange” (Asahi Shimbun, 2013), “cold to victims” (Mainichi Shimbun, 2013), and “monkey wisdom” (Shukan Kinyobi, 2013). In this context, mandatory prosecution through PRC review seemed to reflect “the public will,” which was the main purpose of the law that created this institution (West, 1992, p.694).

II. Trial

During the pre-trial process that ensued after mandatory prosecution was instituted in February 2016, the issues to be contested at the TEPCO trial were defined, and relevant evidence was presented by the prosecution and defense. Then the trial took place in 38 sessions over a 27-month period, from June 30, 2017 to September 19, 2019.19 It was a shorter trial than many people anticipated, partly because the sessions (one every three weeks, on the average) were held closer together than is often the case when trials occur before a panel of professional judges.20 The Tokyo District Court did not want this trial to last as long as many high-profile contested trials have in the past (in 1999, a former nursery school teacher named Yamada Etsuko was acquitted of homicide some 21 years after she had been charged when a PRC had concluded that prosecutors’ non-charge decision was inappropriate). The TEPCO trial also attracted much attention in the media and many more observers than the courtroom in Kasumigaseki could accommodate. Even late in the trial, few analysts were confident about what the verdicts would be. We were unsure, too.

In presenting the prosecution’s case, the designated attorneys stressed that, based on knowledge that was available before 3/11, a major earthquake and tsunami were concretely foreseeable events, and that the TEPCO executives should have and could have prevented the nuclear meltdown if they had fulfilled their “duty of care” (chui gimu). According to the criminal law of professional negligence as defined in Article 211 of Japan’s Penal Code (and under orthodox interpretations of Article 211 by Japan’s judiciary), if a professional engages continuously and repetitively in acts that are potentially dangerous to others, the person who has chosen to commit those acts has a special “duty of care” (Herber, 2016). Media reporting on this trial stressed that the prosecution’s case relied on a 2002 report from the Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion (HERP), which stated that there was a 20 percent chance of a magnitude 8 earthquake occurring near Fukushima within the next 20 years. In actuality, the prosecution presented much evidence in addition to the HERP report, including TEPCO emails and memos that showed TEPCO executives were informed of risks and advised of countermeasures long before 3/11, as well as testimony from witnesses who suggested that executives seemed reluctant to take meaningful countermeasures against a catastrophe. To put it in plain language, the prosecution’s core claim was that TEPCO executives had allowed cost considerations and profit imperatives to prevail over considerations of public safety.
In response to the charges of criminal negligence, the defense maintained what TEPCO spokespersons have long insisted: that the company has adhered to the “basic policy of always keeping safety first” (TEPCO, 2012). It also stressed that HERP’s report was unreliable, and that other experts disagreed with its conclusions, especially the Japan Society of Civil Engineers, whose 2002 report had been emphasized by professional prosecutors in their explanations for the non-charge decisions that were subsequently overturned by the Tokyo PRCs. More fundamentally, the defense insisted that a disaster of Fukushima’s magnitude was not “concretely foreseeable,” and it argued that its 5.7-meter (19 foot) sea wall was designed to withstand a tsunami equivalent to the maximum tide level ever recorded on the Fukushima shores. For their part, the three defendants echoed at trial what TEPCO spokespersons had been saying since the 3/11 meltdown: the safeguards they took were sufficient, but they “deeply regretted” the accident that occurred and the trouble it caused to victims and survivors. Many observers found their words hollow and insincere. Apologies of this kind – “I am not causally or legally responsible, but I am sorry” – are common in Japan. One analyst has noted the tendency to “grovel through a ritual of remorse” is so routine that “it’s a running joke” in some parts of Japanese society (West, 2006, p.285).



The Tokyo District Court made three main points in its decision to acquit the former TEPCO executives (Takeda, 2019). First, the Court acknowledged that the “long-term evaluation of seismic activities,” which was published by HERP in 2002, had predicted that a tsunami of up to 15.7 meters (52 feet) could occur, but it said this assessment lacked a “concrete foundation,” and concluded that there were doubts about its “reliability.” We call this the Shaky Prediction claim. Second, based on knowledge available at the time of 3/11, the Court held that the defendants did not have an obligation to shut down the nuclear plant until safety countermeasures against a giant tsunami could be completed. We call this the No Duty to Shut It Down claim. Third and most broadly, legal standards that applied at the time of the Fukushima incident did not create an obligation for the executives to ensure the “absolute safety” of nuclear power plants. In one often-quoted sentence, the Court stated that “it would be impossible to operate a nuclear plant if operators are obliged to predict every possibility about a tsunami and take necessary measures” (Dooley et al, 2019; Olsen, 2019). We call this the Absolute Safety Not Required claim. On these three grounds, the Tokyo District Court concluded that none of the defendants is criminally responsible for the deaths of the 44 patients who were evacuated from Futaba Hospital or for the injuries of the 13 soldiers that were caused by explosions at the Fukushima plant.

In our view, all of the Court’s core claims are questionable, and so, therefore, are its conclusions.

Shaky Prediction? After the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 brought to light a number of problems in Japan’s earthquake disaster prevention measures, a Special Measure Law on Earthquake Disaster Prevention was enacted in July of the same year. The law recognized failures to communicate and apply the results of earthquake research to the general public and to organizations that could and should prevent disasters. It also established a Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion, as a special governmental organization attached to the Prime Minister’s Office (HERP now belongs to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology). Among other missions, it “evaluates seismic activity in a comprehensive manner” and “publishes evaluation results”. Its report in 2002 predicted a 20 percent chance of an M8.0 earthquake and (in such an event) tsunami heights of 8.4 to 10.2 meters, which far exceed the 5.7-meter seawall at Fukushima. But TEPCO ignored this report, claiming there was “no wave source model” for the prediction. However, other engineers have explained that “the Fukushima accident was preventable” when examining seismic hazards over long periods of time, and they emphasized that “the best practice remains to assume that the largest inferred event can occur anywhere along the coast of interest” when there are large seismic events in the historical record (Synolakis and Kanoglu, 2015, p.10). Considering the coast’s historical record, TEPCO’s failure to follow best practice is both “inconceivable” and “incomprehensible” (Synolakis and Kanoglu, 2015, p.10).

There also was an abundance of other evidence introduced at trial that major earthquakes and massive tsunamis have occurred near the Sanriku coast, including (as described at the outset of this article) an 8.1 magnitude earthquake in 1933 that caused a tsunami about the same size as its successor would be in 2011 (Ramseyer, 2012). In many fields where experts forecast the future, predictions are inaccurate and unreliable (Tetlock, 2005). In this case, however, the question was not whether a major earthquake would occur; it was when. And in science and common sense, it is taken for granted that a massive earthquake may cause a giant tsunami. Philosophically, the March 11 earthquake and tsunami have been called “black swan” events, for they were unpredictable, they had big impacts, and (after the fact) it was easy to concoct explanations that made them appear more certain than they actually were (Taleb, 2007; Aven, 2015). But scientifically and legally, a massive earthquake and a mighty tsunami near Fukushima were foreseeable events, even if their exact date was impossible to predict. TEPCO not only paid insufficient attention to historical evidence of large tsunamis striking the region (Acton and Hibbs, 2012). It also failed to follow up on its own computer simulation which showed a serious tsunami risk to the plant in 2008, three years before 3/11. But TEPCO reported the results of this simulation to NISA just 4 days before the triple disaster occurred (Kingston, 2012).

No Duty to Shut It Down? The Court’s second conclusion, that uncertainty about earthquakes and tsunamis means there was no need to shut down the nuclear reactors in Fukushima, is a grand non-sequitur (Takeda, 2019). To be sure, the nuclear meltdowns could have been prevented by shutting the nuclear reactors down. In retrospect, this extreme step would have been prudent. But shutting down the reactors was not the only way to avert nuclear catastrophe. Other countermeasures could have been taken, and some were taken by other power plants impacted by 3/11 (Soeda, 2019). The plants that took sufficient precautions did not meltdown, including Units 4, 5, and 6 of the Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Plant (National Academies Press, 2014; Synolakis and Kanoglu, 2015).

By insisting that the only way to avert a catastrophic meltdown was to shut down the Fukushima plants entirely, the Tokyo District Court “arbitrarily changed the frame” (katte ni dohyo o kaeta) for deciding the question of preventability, and it did so in a way that made conviction more difficult (Takeda, 2019). The Court also turned a blind eye to facts that favored conviction. If the emergency power supplies had been moved to higher ground or placed in watertight bunkers, the nuclear disaster could have been prevented. If watertight connections had been made between emergency power supplies and critical safety systems, the nuclear disaster could have been prevented. And if seawater pumps had been better protected or a backup means to dissipate heat had been constructed, the nuclear disaster could have been prevented. In short, even if the TEPCO executives did not have a duty to shut down the Fukushima plant, they repeatedly violated their duty of care by failing to take other reasonable safety precautions.21

Absolute Safety Not Required? The Court’s third conclusion, that absolute safety is not required when operating a nuclear power reactor, also rests on dubious reasoning (Soeda, 2019). For starters, TEPCO’s nuclear power plants have had numerous accidents and incidents over the years. “Absolute safety” is a pipe dream. What the law expects is reasonable care: the degree of caution and concern an ordinary, prudent, and rational person would exercise in similar circumstances. Moreover, by siting nuclear plants in convenient locations building public support for the production of nuclear energy, TEPCO executives had long fostered belief in what has come to be called the “myth of safety” (anzen shinwa) – the view that nuclear accidents could not and would not occur (Aldrich, 2014). Before 3/11, this belief “tended to stifle honest and open discussion of the risks” of nuclear power (Noggerath, Geller, and Gusiakov, 2011, p.37). After 3/11, this belief was revealed to be a fairy tale.22 In order to find that “absolute safety is not required,” the Tokyo District Court had to turn a deaf ear to TEPCO’s decades-long PR campaign, whose aim was to convince the public that nuclear energy is completely safe. It also had to turn a jurisprudential somersault, by applying a duty of care23 in a case involving nuclear power (!) that is lower than the duty of care that courts routinely apply for automobile accidents (Takeda, 2019).

In sum, the Tokyo District Court’s decision makes two major mistakes. First, by requiring the prosecution to show that shutting down the plant was the one and only way to prevent a meltdown, it raised the evidentiary bar to an unusually and unreasonably high level. Second, by lowering the “duty of care” for TEPCO executives, it defined “professional negligence” down in a way that contradicts previous judicial interpretations and that closely resembles the claims prosecutors made in their original non-charge decisions (Soeda, 2019).24

We cannot read the minds or the motives of the judges in this case, but their problematical reasoning is compatible with the view that “peculiar convictions and biases” (tokuyu na omoikomi ya baiasu) led them to their conclusion (Takeda, 2019). There is a long history of Japanese judges deferring to the interests of professional prosecutors in criminal cases (Foote, 2010). Research also shows that Japanese judges who decide cases in ways favored by the ruling party sometimes enjoy better careers than do judges who deviate from the party line (Ramseyer and Rasmusen, 2003). In this light, we should not be surprised to find that judges’ convictions in the TEPCO case closely resemble those possessed by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and by professional prosecutors.



The outcome of the TEPCO trial also raises an interesting question: what if the trial had occurred before a lay judge panel of six citizens and three professional judges? This did not happen in the TEPCO case because under Japan’s Lay Judge Law, the only crimes eligible for lay judge trial are those for which the maximum possible punishment is a life sentence or a death sentence (only about 2 percent of Japanese crimes fall into these categories). But what if?

One prominent Japanese journalist has claimed that if there had been a lay judge trial, the citizens sitting in judgment would have been free of the “peculiar convictions and biases” that caused judges to tilt toward acquittal (and toward the procuracy and the LDP). He also believes that lay judges’ fidelity to the basic rules of criminal procedure would have led them to conviction (Takeda, 2019). In our view, this counterfactual reasoning is plausible but not persuasive. For one thing, the conviction rate in lay judge cases is actually a little lower than it was in similar cases before the lay judge reform took effect in 2009. For another, professional judges tend to dominate the deliberations by lay judge panels in Japan, much as professional judges do in criminal cases adjudicated by mixed tribunals in European countries (Johnson and Vanoverbeke, forthcoming). Moreover, to convict a criminal defendant in Japan, at least one professional judge must join the majority on a lay judge panel. Under this rule, lay judges cannot simply out-vote their professional counterparts on the bench. In the TEPCO case, persuading one judge to join their side and convict the three defendants may have been a tall order. On the other hand, this was a case in which citizens on two different PRCs overrode the non-charge decisions of professional prosecutors. It is therefore reasonable to wonder whether citizen participation in the TEPCO trial would have reached a different verdict. The answer is not obvious.


III. Lessons

Sometimes a not-guilty verdict is a miscarriage of justice – recall O.J. Simpson’s acquittal for a double-murder in 1995 (Toobin, 1996). In our view, there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the TEPCO executives acted with criminal negligence when they failed to exercise reasonable care in their management of the nuclear power plants at Fukushima. In fact, there was more evidence of guilt (and less room for reasonable doubt) in the TEPCO trial than in thousands of cases of negligence that result in the criminal conviction of automobile drivers in traffic accidents each year in Japan (Kawai, 2015; Takeda, 2019).

But while the TEPCO trial ended in acquittal, it was not all for naught. The trial and the criminal processes that preceded it revealed many facts that are proving useful to plaintiffs in their ongoing civil lawsuits with TEPCO and the Japanese government (Dooley, Yamamitsu, and Inoue, 2019).25 The TEPCO prosecution also revealed facts that were previously unknown, concealed, or denied (Repeta, 2013; Herber, 2016; Takeda, 2019), and it promoted public discussion of issues related to nuclear power and regulation (Jones, 2019). The criminal process also clarified the truth about Fukushima by exposing many of TEPCO’s claims as humbug and hokum. In this sense, the TEPCO trial was an elaborate and successful act of “bullshit-detection” (Frankfurt, 2005).26 Thanks to the information revealed in this case, we now know that TEPCO executives had many opportunities to increase safety at the aging Fukushima plants, and that they had many good reasons to believe more safety was imperative (Acton and Hibbs, 2012). But instead of spending money to make the Fukushima facilities safer, and instead of making improvements that could have made Fukushima as safe as the nuclear reactors at Onagawa in Miyagi prefecture (just north of Fukushima), which were assaulted by the same size tsunami but had an entirely different fate, TEPCO executives paid dozens of celebrities to appear in advertising aimed at persuading the public that safety was the company’s top priority (Horvat, 2011, p.201). Safety was not TEPCO’s top priority. Profit was (Repeta, 2011, p.186). The “most critical question” for company executives was not “how safe is safe enough?” but rather “how can we maximize profits?” (Lochbaum et al, 2014, p.248). It is not clear whether TEPCO’s priorities have changed in the post-3/11 period. In many local areas, the company continues to push for the use of nuclear power, much as it has been doing for decades (Aldrich, 2010). Backed by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and by the cabinet of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, TEPCO is also lobbying for permission to dump into the ocean up to one million tons of contaminated water that are currently stored in 1000 or so giant tanks on the Fukushima plant site (the water was pumped through the reactors to cool melted fuel that is too hot and radioactive to remove). TEPCO repeatedly claimed that all but one type of radioactive material (tritium, which is believed to pose a low risk to human health) had been removed to levels deemed safe for discharge under Japanese law, but in the summer of 2019 the company acknowledged that “only about one-fifth of the stored water had been effectively treated,” because TEPCO had not changed filters frequently enough in its decontamination system (Rich and Inoue, 2019). Fukushima fishermen believe that dumping the dirty water will destroy their already devastated business, and many observers believe TEPCO’s long history of dishonesty and deception means its assurances should not be trusted.

The three elderly defendants in the TEPCO trial returned home after they were acquitted, but they did not return to life as normal. The designated attorneys have appealed to the Tokyo High Court, which will hold hearings in the next year or two. Considering the tendencies of Japan’s conservative judiciary, convictions on appeal seem unlikely (Segi, 2015).

Japan’s criminal courts have long been criticized for having an “iron hand” of justice that results in conviction rates of “close to 100 percent” (Johnson, 2002, p.215),27 but in the TEPCO trial it was acquittals that prompted widespread criticism. A spokesman for Greenpeace said,
“A guilty verdict would have been a devastating blow not just to TEPCO but the Abe government and the Japanese nuclear industry. It is therefore perhaps not a surprise that the court has failed to rule based on the evidence. More than eight years after the start of this catastrophe, TEPCO and the government are still avoiding being held to full account for their decades of ignoring the science of nuclear risks”.28

Ishida Shozaburo, one of the designated attorneys, also claimed the fix was in. “This is a ruling that took the government’s nuclear power policy into consideration,” he lamented (The Mainichi, 9/20/2019). A more general version of this view holds that Japanese courts are often instruments of state power, and that Japanese judges routinely stand on the side of government by affirming its preferences – as they did in the TEPCO trial (Segi, 2014; Ramseyer and Rasmusen, 2003).29

Lawyer Kaido Yuichi, who has represented victims of the Fukushima meltdown in various legal proceedings, echoed these views when he fumed that “I never imagined such a terrible ruling would be handed down…If criminal punishments can’t be pursued for causing an accident, a similar [nuclear] accident could occur again” (The Mainichi, September 20, 2019).

Members of a support group for victims and complainants who were waiting outside the Tokyo District Court “roared in anger” when they were informed of the acquittals (Asahi Shimbun Asia & Japan Watch, September 20, 2019). Yoshidome Akihiro, an 81-year-old anti-nuclear campaigner from Tokyo, said “I had braced myself that we might not get a clean victory, but this [result] is too awful. This shows Japanese courts don’t stand for people’s interest” (Japan Today, September 20, 2019).

And an editorial in Japan’s newspaper of record called the Tokyo court ruling “baffling” because it took “a surprisingly different stance toward the predictability of the tsunami from other [Japanese] court decisions concerning the matter” (Asahi Shimbun Asia & Japan Watch, September 20, 2019).30

Around the turn of the 20th century, the scientist Marie Currie carried around a vial of radium salt because she liked the pretty blue glow. Since then there have been many atomic mistakes, accidents, and disasters (Mahaffey, 2015). Two of the biggest were Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. The criminal justice consequences of both differed markedly from those in the Fukushima case.

On March 28, 1979, the accident that occurred at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania began when a pump providing cooling water to steam generators stopped running. This triggered a series of events that caused a nuclear reactor to shut down (Walker, 2006). It was the 13th time in a year that problems in the cooling system had caused a shutdown. The TMI accident was much less serious than the crisis at Fukushima, but the fundamental cause was “one common and dangerous belief: that an accident at Three Mile Island, or Fukushima Daiichi, just could not happen” (Lochbaum et al, 2014, p.142). TMI has been called “the most studied accident in U.S. history, at least up to that time” (Lochbaum et al, 2014, p.149). Many analysts agree that “the accident largely resulted from safety studies and reviews that focused too narrowly on nuclear plant designs and hardware and not sufficiently on the human part of the safety equation” (Lochbaum et al, 2014, p.149, emphasis added). For example, the Kemeny Commission (appointed by President Jimmy Carter) stressed “the failure of organizations to learn the proper lessons from previous incidents” and said “we are convinced that an accident like Three Mile Island was inevitable” (quoted in Lochbaum et al, 2014, p.150).31 Other studies have revealed that organizational and management factors, not technology, were the main cause of the TMI incident (Perrow, 1984; Pidgeon, 2011). Yet America’s nuclear industry was “uncowed by these conclusions,” and in the decades that followed, the industry and its supporters repeatedly emphasized that “nobody died at TMI.” This shibboleth would become “a huge stumbling block to comprehensive safety reform” in the United States and other countries, including Japan (Lochbaum et al, 2014, p.150). In the end, a federal grand jury indicted the TMI operator, the Metropolitan Edison Company, for falsifying leak rate data and destroying documents related to the accident, but none of the human mistakes or misconduct resulted in the prosecution and conviction of corporate executives (Weinraub, 1983).

In the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a reactor exploded during a test of emergency power availability, killing at least 31 people (this official Soviet count is contested, and it does not include those who died from the effects of radiation exposure in the years that followed). The subsequent meltdown forced the evacuation of 135,000, and it spread radioactive material across Europe and beyond. This has been called “the world’s greatest nuclear disaster” (Higginbotham, 2019). After 3/11, it took Japan’s criminal justice system eight-and-one-half years to reach verdicts in criminal court. In Chernobyl, it took just three months for the head of the nuclear power station and two of his aids to be convicted of crimes and sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. In a summation of the criminal court’s decision, the chief judge stressed that the Chernobyl plant had been poorly administered, and that “an atmosphere of lack of control and lack of responsibility” was the main cause of the disaster (New York Times, July 30, 1987). Three other Chernobyl employees were convicted of crimes and sentenced to 5 years, 3 years, and 2 years, respectively, and three other engineers who were criminally charged had their prosecutions terminated when they died. The criminal trial of the six people who were convicted lasted all of three weeks, and most of it was closed to the public. This was a rush to judgment of the kind that is common in repressive legal systems (Nonet and Selznick, 1978, p.29). As for the remains of Chernobyl itself, they now lie within an “exclusion zone” of 1000 square miles, where wildlife flourishes in what some have called “a radioactive Eden” (Higginbotham, 2019).

Another turn of the comparative kaleidoscope focuses on a non-nuclear accident involving Japan’s nearest neighbor, South Korea. The sinking of the M.V. Sewol ferry in South Korean waters on April 16, 2014 killed 304 people – 250 of them high-school students on a class trip. Lee Jun-seok, the captain of the Sewol, jumped a railing and abandoned ship. He was one of 172 passengers and crew to survive – and one of 15 members of the crew to be convicted of criminal charges related to the sinking (Lavery, 2019). In November 2014, the Gwangju District Court found Lee guilty of negligence and sentenced him to 36 years in prison. The chief engineer of the Sewol was convicted and received a 30-year sentence, and the 13 other defendants were convicted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment up to 20 years. After the prosecution and defense appealed, Lee’s sentence was increased from 36 years to life imprisonment, while the other 14 defendants had their sentences reduced to a maximum term of incarceration of 12 years. This may not have been a rush to judgment in the Russian style, but it was fast enough to make many observers wonder if the “quick” was undermining the “careful.” The criminal prosecutions in the Sewol case were also shaped by brazenly populist and political forces that are common in Korean criminal justice (Choe, 2019) but more difficult to discern in high-profile cases in Japan – including the TEPCO case.32

The TEPCO case raises important questions about the capacity of the criminal law to hold corporations and their agents accountable. For many decades corporations have been, for good and for ill, some of the primary makers and managers of social change in Japanese society, and they are rightly considered the source of many of the country’s most serious crime problems (Miller and Kanazawa, 2000, pp.81-92). Some analysts believe the TEPCO acquittals are prima facie evidence that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the former executives in the first place (Goodman, 2019). But in our view, “a courtroom loss, even if predictable, does not mean the case should not have been brought” (Gillers, 2000). As described above, the TEPCO trial and criminal investigations revealed many important facts and performed a variety of functions, including increased public awareness of the risks of nuclear power.

Other analysts have criticized the Tokyo PRC for presuming the possibility of a “zero-risk society” (Sankei Shimbun, August 1, 2015). On this view, using law to promote extremely low tolerance for risk creates perverse incentives for business, governmental, and civilian actors, who may become too cautious about taking risks that would lead to economic growth. But when it comes to nuclear energy, the central risk is a disaster that could be catastrophic – and that was catastrophic at Fukushima and Chernobyl. The most perverse legal incentives are those put in place by the rules of limited liability that apply to corporations in Japan and many other nations, for in the event of a disaster they cap a corporation’s liability at the fire-sale value of its net assets. As Ramseyer (2012) has observed,

Because that maximum [amount of liability] falls far short of the social costs of a nuclear meltdown, Tokyo Electric will not pay the full cost of running these reactors. Instead, it can use the law to externalize the cost of doing business. It and the other power companies built nuclear reactors that could not survive expected earthquakes. But they did not do so foolishly. They did so because the limited liability at the heart of the corporate law made it profitable to do so.”

Ramseyer is right about the effects of the legal rule of limited liability, for it creates incentives for corporations to externalize the negative consequences of their actions. But we wonder about the wisdom of contrasting profit-seeking behavior with foolishness, for what is profitable can be foolish in the extreme – and Fukushima is Exhibit A. The legal regime under which TEPCO and many other corporations operate is perverse in that it encourages and condones harmful behavior if it is profitable to the company. It is even appropriate to ask a question that some may find inflammatory: are corporations “psychopathic?”
One hallmark of corporations is that they “lack the ability to care about anyone or anything but themselves” (Bakan, 2004, p.57). This is also a defining trait of psychopathy. And when an expert on psychopathology (Dr. Robert Hare) was asked how his checklist for diagnosing this condition in individuals applied to the character of corporations, he found a close match in several other respects (see Bakan, 2004, pp.56-57):

(1) Corporations are irresponsible in that they attempt to satisfy the goal of profitability and are willing to put much else at risk in the process.

(2) Corporations are manipulative about public opinion.

(3) Corporations are grandiose, frequently insisting on their own superiority.

(4) Corporations lack empathy for the victims of their behavior.

(5) Corporations are asocial and inconsiderate of the interests of others.

(6) Corporations refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions.

(7) Corporations are unable to feel remorse.

(8) Corporations relate to others superficially, by presenting themselves to the public in a manner that seems appealing but does not reflect their real character.

In short, corporations are often “compelled to cause harm when the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs” (Bakan, 2004, p.60). This is not mainly a matter of will or malevolence. Rather, the corporation has within it, as the shark has within it, “those characteristics that enable it to do that for which it was designed” (Bakan, 2004, p.70). The result is a self-interested organization that is created and enabled by law yet difficult for law to control (Stone, 1975; Bakan, 2004; Barak, 2017). Japan’s lawmakers have done little to criminalize corporate misconduct (Matsuo, 2007), and Japanese prosecutors and judges have long been reluctant to punish corporations and their agents for the harms that they cause (Miller and Kanazawa, 2000; Johnson, 2000; Johnson, 2017). In these senses, Japanese criminal law and criminal justice resemble their counterparts in many other countries. In the TEPCO case, it was lay citizens on the Prosecution Review Commissions whose decisions led to the prosecution of a few corporate elites – and ultimately to their acquittal. In the end, Fukushima teaches lessons about the risks of nuclear energy, the awesome power to prosecute, and the limits of the criminal sanction. It also serves as a poignant reminder that “business as usual” for corporations can have terrible consequences for people and the planet, both in the present and far into the future.33 Experts believe it will take 40 to 200 years to clean up the Fukushima site (Jobin, 2019, p.73). In the meantime, the plant and its surroundings have become a huge storage area for radioactive waste and a grotesque monument to corporate misconduct, government dereliction, and criminal impunity.


Appendix: Fukushima Timeline

Our summary of the events leading to and resulting from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown of March 11, 2011 focuses narrowly, on a few decades before 3/11, and the decade or so after it. The first entries in the timeline are meant to highlight the context of 3/11 by describing events that preceded Japan’s triple disaster, while the remaining entries summarize the criminal justice aftermath.

Before 3/11

May 1960 – The Great Chilean earthquake (magnitude 9.4 – 9.6) is the largest ever recorded instrumentally. Estimates of the total number of fatalities from the earthquake and subsequent tsunamis range between 1000 and 7000. A 6-meter tsunami (20 feet) reached Japan 23 hours later, killing 138 people. In Chile, the tsunami reached 25 meters (82 feet). And the 35-foot tsunami that struck Hilo, Hawaii at 1:05 AM on May 23 killed 61 people. It was on the basis of these experiences that seawalls with normalized heights of 6 meters or so were constructed along the Sanriku coast in the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan (Synokalis and Kanoglu, 2015).

1974 – Two scholars (SL Soloviev and ChN Go) publish a 310-page book (A Catalog of Tsunamis on the Western Shore of the Pacific Ocean) which refers to 19 studies (published between 1868 and 1969) of the magnitude 8.6 Jogan earthquake of 869 AD, which had an epicenter approximately 120 kilometers west of the earthquake that occurred on March 11, 2011. This Russian book was translated into English in 1984. It assigned the Jogan tsunami an intensity of I = 4 (one of the highest values). Research published in 1971 showed that the magnitude 8.5 Showa Sanriku earthquake of 1933 generated a tsunami with heights up to 29 meters (95 feet). Hardest hit was the town of Taro in Iwate prefecture (now part of Miyako city), where 42 percent of the population was killed and 98 percent of the houses were destroyed. The seawall built to protect the Fukushima plant was 5.6 meters (18 feet). After 3/11, TEPCO argued repeatedly that there had been no reliable evidence of significantly larger tsunamis striking the eastern coast of Japan (Synolakis and Kanoglu, 2015).

July 1993 – A magnitude 7.7 earthquake occurs, causing the Hokkaido Nansei-oki tsunami that devastated the island of Okushiri with run-ups in some places reaching 30 meters (98 feet). Okushiri’s 4.5-meter seawall (15 feet) was overtopped by a tsunami of 11 meters (36 feet). In 1998, Japan spent over $600 million ($130,000 per Okushiri resident) to build an 11-meter seawall, to rebuild the main town of Aonae, and to protect about 20 kilometers (12 miles) of coastline.

2000 – Sugaoka Kei, a nuclear inspector working for General Electric at Fukushima No.1, notices a crack in a reactor’s steam dryer, which extracts excess moisture to prevent damage to the turbine. When TEPCO directs Sugaoka to cover up the evidence, he contacts government regulators, who order TEPCO to handle the problem on its own. TEPCO does, and Sugaoka is fired.

July 2002 – Japan’s Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion (HERP) publishes a long-term Evaluation of Seismic Activities (choki hyoka) which estimates a 20 percent chance of an M8.0 earthquake occurring in the next 30 years in the Japan Trench that includes Fukushima Prefecture.

August 2002 – The Japanese government reveals that TEPCO is guilty of false reporting in routine governmental inspections of its nuclear plants, and of concealing numerous plant safety incidents. All seventeen of TEPCO’s boiling-water reactors are shut down for inspection, and the company’s chairman, president, vice-president, and two advisers resign. TEPCO eventually admits that it submitted false technical data at least 200 times between 1977 and 2002. TEPCO’s new president announces that the company will take all necessary countermeasures to prevent fraud and restore the nation’s confidence, but in 2007 the company announces that an internal investigation has revealed other unreported incidents.

December 2004 – A 9.1 to 9.3 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean near Sumatra ruptures along a fault length of 1500 km (900 miles, or longer than the state of California). The rumbling lasts 10 minutes and causes a series of tsunami waves up to 30 meters high (100 feet), killing more than 220,000 people in 14 countries. This comes to be known as the Boxing Day Tsunami.

September 2006 – In response to a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Kobe that killed 6000 people in January 1995, Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (an organization within the Cabinet Office) issues 14 pages of new guidelines “concerning inspection standards for vibration resistance,” and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) instructs nuclear power operators to conduct “backchecks” to confirm compliance with the new guidelines. The guidelines state that Japan’s nuclear facilities must be built to withstand tsunamis “which are appropriate to expect during the operational life [40 years] of the plant even though the possibility of such occurrence may be very rare.” But they provided no guidance about what would be “appropriate to expect” (Repeta, 2011, pp.188-189).

July 2007 – A 6.8 magnitude earthquake occurs in Niigata Prefecture. Later in 2007 TEPCO acknowledges that it had known since 2003 about the 14-mile-long active fault in the seabed about 11 miles from Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, but it had not reported its findings because company staff did not believe the fault could produce an earthquake large enough to threaten the reactors. After this earthquake, all seven units at TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant are stopped and safety checks are performed. Without 20 percent of its generating capacity, TEPCO posts its first loss in 28 years, totaling $1.44 billion, and its stock value drops 30 percent. To boost public confidence, Shimizu Masataka replaces Katsumata Tsunehisa as the new TEPCO president, and Katsumata (who later became one of the TEPCO trial defendants) becomes chairman. Shimizu, a career TEPCO employee, makes cost-cutting a high priority, and within two years he returns TEPCO to profitability, exceeding his target of $615 million in cuts, partly by “reducing the frequency of inspections” (Lochbaum, Lyman, Stranahan, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, 2014, pp.50-51).

March 2008 – TEPCO makes a tentative calculation that a tsunami of up to 15.7 meters in height (52 feet) could strike the site of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. The calculation is reported to vice-president Muto Sakae in June 2008.

July 2008 – Vice-president Muto puts on hold a TEPCO plan to take countermeasures against a large tsunami. He suggests taking more time to study the issue, and he asks an academic society specializing in this field to do the relevant research.

January 2010 – A 7.0 magnitude earthquake and more than 50 aftershocks occur in Haiti, killing approximately 160,000 people. The fishing town of Petit Paradis is hit by a localized tsunami, killing three people.

February 7, 2011 – After 40 years of operation, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) issues TEPCO a renewed license to operate Unit 1, the oldest nuclear reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi (No.1) Nuclear Power Plant.

March 11, 2011, 2:46 PM – The Great East Japan Earthquake (higashi nihon daishinsai) occurs at 2:46 PM, Japan Standard Time. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake strikes off the northeast coast of Honshu, causing a tsunami that destroys many towns and villages. At the Fukushima Daiichi (No.1) Nuclear Power Plant, which was commissioned in 1971, the power supply and the cooling system for the reactor are damaged, causing nuclear fuel to overheat and melt down. Despite warnings from scientists, critical backup diesel generators had been placed in low-lying areas at high risk for tsunami damage. Some generators were put in the basement, and others were placed 10 to 13 meters above sea level. The tsunami heights coming ashore reached about 15 meters (49 feet). In the words of two engineering scholars who studied the meltdown, TEPCO’s placement of the emergency diesel generators was “inexplicably and fatally low” and made the Fukushima No. 1 plant “a sitting duck waiting to be flooded” (Synolakis and Kanoglu, 2015).

March 11, 2011, 7:03 PM – The Japanese government declares a nuclear emergency and issues evacuation orders to residents who live nearby. The evacuation boundaries are gradually expanded from 3 km to 30 km in the weeks to come. In total, approximately 170,000 people were evacuated from the “prohibited” and “on-alert” areas. In the coastal town of Namie-machi, mayor Baba Tomatsu learned of the nuclear crisis by watching TV, after which TEPCO and government officials directed citizen evacuees from his town of 21,000 directly into the path of the plume. Fifteen-thousand Namie citizens later signed a complaint against TEPCO, and Baba accused TEPCO and the government of “institutional murder” (Cleveland, 2019). In total, the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami killed approximately 18,000 people and forced about 400,000 to evacuate their homes in order to escape the nuclear fallout.

After 3/11

March 12, 2011 – Workers at the Fukushima plant open a Unit 2 reactor vent, which releases pressure and radioactive fumes from inside. The first of a series of hydrogen explosions at the plant rips through the building, but the reactor remains intact. Approximately 160,000 people living near the plant vacate their homes.

December 16, 2011 – Japan’s government says it has contained the leaking reactors, which are now in a state of cold shutdown.

June 11, 2012 – Some 1324 Fukushima residents file a criminal complaint with the Fukushima District Prosecutors Office against 33 TEPCO executives and government officials.

June 20, 2012 – TEPCO releases an accident report that says the strength of the tsunami was beyond what could have reasonably been foreseen.

July 4, 2012 – A panel of experts appointed by the Japanese Diet releases a report which concludes that the Fukushima nuclear accident was “a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented” (National Diet of Japan, 2012). This report has been criticized for stressing the purported dysfunctions of “Japanese culture,” thereby obscuring personal and political responsibility for the decisions that led to the meltdown (Curtis, 2012).

September 7, 2013 – Tokyo is selected to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. In a speech to the International Olympic Committee, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo says the Fukushima crisis is “under control,” though decontamination and decommissioning work is expected to continue for decades.

September 9, 2013 – The Fukushima District Prosecutors Office officially transfers the criminal case to the Tokyo District Prosecutors Office. On the same day, prosecutors in Tokyo announce that they will not charge the TEPCO executives because there is little chance of obtaining convictions.

October 2013 – A Citizens Group from Fukushima asks a Prosecution Review Commission (kensatsu shinsakai) in Tokyo to review prosecutors’ non-charge decision against 6 of the former TEPCO executives.

July 2014 – The Prosecution Review Commission in Tokyo finds that “prosecution is appropriate” (kiso soto) for 3 of the former executives, which obligates prosecutors to reinvestigate the case.

January 2015 – For the second time, the Tokyo District Prosecutors Office decides not to charge the 3 former executives.

July 31, 2015 – A Prosecution Review Commission in Tokyo concludes for the second time that “prosecution is appropriate” (kiso soto), which initiates the process of “mandatory prosecution” (kyosei kiso). The panel of 11 citizens on this PRC decide that the three former executives should be tried for negligently causing: (a) the deaths of 44 patients from Futaba Hospital, who died during their evacuation from the area around the Fukushima plant, and (b) the injuries of 13 Self Defense soldiers who were hit by rubble thrown by explosions at the Fukushima plant. These 57 people became the designated victims in the TEPCO criminal trial.

August and September 2015 – The Tokyo District Court appoints five private attorneys (recommended by Nichibenren, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations) to be the “designated attorneys” (shitei bengoshi) to play the role of prosecutor in the mandatory prosecution of the three former executives.

February 2016 – The designated attorneys charge the three former executives with “professional negligence resulting in death or injury” (gyomujo kashitsu chishishozai). The maximum criminal punishment for this crime is five years imprisonment or a fine of not more than 1 million yen (about $9100). This was the ninth case of mandatory prosecution since a legal reform in 2009 enabled PRCs to override the non-charge decisions of professional prosecutors and compel prosecution. In the previous eight cases, only 2 out of 11 defendants were convicted.

March 17, 2017 – For the first time, a court orders TEPCO and the Japanese government to pay compensation (38.6 million yen, or about $340,000) to some of the residents who had fled their homes after the nuclear disaster. A total of at least 30 civil lawsuits have been filed against TEPCO and the Japanese government over their failure to anticipate and prevent the 2011 meltdown. As of September 2019, eight judgments have been rendered, and TEPCO has lost all eight (Dooley, Yamamitsu, and Inoue, 2019).

June 30, 2017 – In the first session of their criminal trial at the Tokyo District Court, the three former executives plead “not guilty.” All claim they “do not recognize any predictability in the disaster.” Over the next 27 months, 37 more trial sessions are held. In the penultimate trial session on March 12, 2019, the designated attorneys asked the Court to impose a prison sentence of five years on each of the three defendants.

September 19, 2019 – The three TEPCO defendants are acquitted. Presiding Judge Nagafuchi Kenichi takes nearly three hours to read the court’s decision, which acknowledges that the executives were aware that a massive tsunami could strike the Fukushima plant, but concludes that there was not enough evidence to find that the executives should have suspended the plant’s operation in order to avoid a nuclear accident. The court-appointed prosecutors appealed on September 30, 2019, and the appeals process is expected to take at least a year or two.



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More precisely, the three former executives were charged with “causing death or bodily injury through negligence in the pursuit of social activities” (gyomujo kashitsu chishisho), which is defined by Article 211 of Japan’s Penal Code as follows: “A person who fails to exercise due care required in the pursuit of social activities and thereby causes the death or injury of another shall be punished by imprisonment with or without work for not more than 5 years or a fine of not more than 1,000,000 yen. The same shall apply to a person who through gross negligence causes the death or injury of another”.


A discussion of the health effects of radiation is beyond the scope of this essay. For summaries, see Thomas and Symonds (2016) and Hooper (2015).


The number of civil lawsuits brought against TEPCO “is far fewer than the number brought in similar cases in the U.S.,” such as the Deepwater Horizon BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010 (Yamaguchi and Muto, 2012, p.5).


We define white-collar crime as “an illegal act, punishable by law, committed by an individual or organization in the course of a legitimate occupation wherein a public … trust is violated” (Walters, 2002, p.129).


On the perils of forgetting past tsunamis and neglecting their implications for the present, see Bonnie Henderson, The Next Tsunami: Living on a Restless Coast (2014), about a tsunami that struck the Oregon coast on March 27, 1964, after a magnitude 9.2 earthquake in Alaska. As geologic oceanographer Chris Goldfinger observes in this fine book, “It seems that the more ‘advanced’ a society becomes, the shorter its memory.” Two-and-one-half centuries earlier, on January 26, 1700, another massive tremor in the Pacific Northwest caused a tsunami that devastated coastal regions in Japan, some 5000 miles away. In a fascinating and frightening essay, Kathryn Schulz (2015) has summarized science that shows another earthquake and tsunami – “the really big one” – will sooner-or-later “destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest” of the United States. In her view, the only question is when – and northwestern North America is utterly unprepared for it.


The story of the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima is closely tied to Japan’s pursuit of rapid economic growth in the postwar period. Indeed, one fundamental cause of this disaster is “the boundless appetite for power needed to drive [Japan’s] economy” (Repeta, 2011, p.192).


A recent review of worldwide nuclear accident data found that “Japan has had more nuclear accidents of greater severity than other countries” (Behling, Williams, and Managi, 2019, p.308).


Unlike the selection of jurors in the United States and of lay judges in Japan, there is no voir dire for selecting PRC members, though some citizens are excluded by law from participating, including ex-convicts and elected officials. Each member of a PRC serves for six months, and a foreperson is selected to lead it. The PRC system is administered by a government office known as the Prosecution Review Commission Office, and each PRC is largely reliant on secretaries (jimukan) in the judiciary for assistance in managing and processing its caseloads (Fukurai, 2013).


In addition to corporate and white-collar crime, at least two other types of crime are under-prosecuted in many societies, including Japan and the United States: sexual assaults, and domestic violence. In the United States, shootings by police are seldom charged as well (Zimring, 2017, ch.9). On the tendency of law (“governmental social control”) to more often be directed “downward” (toward persons who lack wealth, power, prestige, and influence) than “upward,” see Donald Black, 1976, pp.11-36. On the same tendency in Japan, see David T. Johnson (1999), which echoes Jonathan Swift by noting that criminal laws in Japan “are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.”


One question concerns how much influence legal advisors have on PRC decision-making. More research is needed on this subject, but three things seem clear. First, the legal advisor’s role is important. Second, many legal advisors are unsure how proactive to be in their interactions with PRC members, and some believe they should not lead a PRC to deliberate or vote in a certain way. Third, final authority for making a charge decision rests with the PRC. Note, too, that requests for PRC review come from ordinary citizens (not from legal advisors), and that in high-profile cases (such as TEPCO and Rikuzankai), the citizens who serve on a PRC are often aware of relevant facts and issues. For more on legal advisors, see JFBA (2016).


In most cases of mandatory prosecution, the designated attorneys are not well paid. In the TEPCO case, for example, each designated attorney was paid less than 1,000,000 yen per year, which is less than $10,000 (Nishimura, 2019). In 2016, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations published a 15-page report recommending a number of PRC reforms, including pay increases, “management improvements,” and other “system reforms” (see JFBA, 2016).


Japan’s PRCs are not the only legal institutions that have failed to produce many criminal convictions. In nearly two decades, the highly publicized International Criminal Court “has won only four convictions, and its caseload has consisted mainly of African leaders” (see Londono, 2019).


Death and serious injury are common in Japanese judo classes. From 1983 to 2011, at least 118 students died as a result of judo class exercises (an average of 4 deaths per year). In the Nagano trial, Kojima Takeshima, the father of one judo victim (Kojima Musashi) and the vice president of the Judo Accident Victims Association, testified about the frequency of judo deaths and injuries.


The figures for 1949 to 2001 come from unpublished studies by former prosecutor Yamashita Terutoshi. We are grateful for his assistance. For the decade from 2002 to 2011, Yamashita found that the charge rate by prosecutors after a PRC “kicked back” a case was 25 percent.


The five white-collar crime indictments are: (1) professional negligence by the Deputy Chief of the Akashi Police Department in the Akashi Pedestrian Bridge incident; (2) professional negligence by three railway company presidents in the JR West Amagasaki Rail Crash case; (3) insider trading by a company president in the Okinawa Unlisted Stock Fraud case; (4) political funding violations by Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader Ozawa Ichiro in the Rikuzankai case; and (5) corporate and professional negligence by three executives in the TEPCO case.


Article 2 of Japan’s Code of Criminal Procedure states that “The territorial jurisdiction of courts is determined by the place where the crime was committed, the place where the domicile or the residence of the accused is located, or the place where the accused is at present.” In the TEPCO case, the second and third provisions were deemed to trump the first one, though the process by which this occurred warrants additional study (Articles 17, 18, and 19 of the CCP are also relevant).


More precisely, control of the TEPCO case shifted from Fukushima to Tokyo through shobun seikun (“request for instructions as to steps to be taken”), which is “less a form of consultation and approval than a complete ‘takeover’ of the case by prosecutor executives” (Johnson, 2002, p.131).


Some analysts believe prosecutors did not want to indict TEPCO executives because a former Prosecutor General (kenji socho, which is Japan’s top prosecutor) had “descended from heaven” (“amakudatte iru”) to be an auditor (kansayaku) for the company (Kawai, 2015). On this view, corruption and/or old-boy influence caused prosecutors not to charge.


Summaries of each TEPCO trial session and of the judicial decision are available here.


Trials before lay judge panels need to be more concentrated in time than trials before panels of professional judges because the citizens who serve as lay judges have work and family responsibilities.


If the TEPCO executives really believed that a severe nuclear accident was impossible, their belief must have been the product of considerable “confirmation bias” (the tendency to overvalue evidence that supports a pre-existing belief and undervalue evidence that contradicts it). Responsibility for the failure to recognize and resist this bias can be located in many actors and institutions, but much of it surely belongs in TEPCO’s safety-second organizational culture (Diet Report, 2012) and in Japan’s lax system of regulation (Kingston, 2012). The next sub-section suggests that Japanese judges in the TEPCO trial may also have been influenced by confirmation bias in their evaluation of evidence about safety and reasonable care.


Of course, even after 3/11, the “myth of safety” was not always acknowledged to be a fairy tale, even in the United States (Pascale, 2017).


A legal “duty of care” is the requirement that a person act toward other people and the public with the watchfulness, attention, caution, and prudence that a reasonable person in the circumstances would use. If a person’s actions do not meet this standard of care, then his or her acts are considered “negligent.”


The Tokyo District Court also disregarded evidence that TEPCO had repeatedly concealed nuclear plant safety incidents. As explained in the Timeline in our Appendix, TEPCO admitted in August 2002 that it had submitted false technical data at least 200 times between 1977 and 2002, and in 2007 it announced that an internal investigation had revealed still more unreported safety problems.


In civil cases in Japan, nuclear victims “have to overcome high hurdles to make use of judicial remedies,” and most lawyers have not been educated to employ innovative strategies within their practice (Suami, 2015, p.184). More generally, on the consequences of Fukushima in Japanese civil and administrative law, see Matsui (2018) and Jobin (2019).


Princeton University philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt believes one of the most salient features of modern cultures is that “there is so much bullshit,” and he argued that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are” (Frankfurt, 2005, pp.1, 61). For similar views, see Michiko Kakutani’s (2018) account of “the death of truth,” “the decline and fall of reason,” and the rise of “propaganda and fake news” in the modern world.


The common view is simplistic and misleading. A Japanese criminal justice system that convicts almost all defendants is actually quite protective of the interests of criminal suspects, because many suspects who would get charged in similar circumstances in other criminal justice systems (including those in the USA) do not get charged in Japan (Johnson, 2002, p.214; Foote, 1992, pp.346-350; Bazelon, 2019).


The acquittals in the TEPCO trial were not only important to Japan’s nuclear industries and the Abe administration, which has long supported nuclear power. They were also welcomed by proponents of nuclear energy around the world, including GE, Westinghouse, Areva, and the uranium mining industry.


For an insightful critique of two contrasting views of Japan’s judiciary (“Political Lackeys or Faithful Public Servants?”), see Frank Upham (2005).


A spokesman for TEPCO declined to comment on the acquittals but said the company expressed its “sincere apologies for the great inconvenience and concern that the TEPCO Fukushima nuclear accident has caused on the people of Fukushima prefecture and society as a whole” (quoted in Dooley, Yamamitsu, and Inoue, 2019). He might just as well have said: “Sorry about the radiation, folks. We know it is inconvenient.”



John G. Kemeny was the President of Dartmouth College. The complete text of the Kemeny Commission’s report (1979, pp.1-178) is available here.


There are, of course, other cases that could be compared to TEPCO. One is the Deepwater Horizon (British Petroleum) oil spill of April 2010, which was the largest marine oil spill on record and one of the biggest environmental disasters in American history. The original explosion killed 11 workers, and nearly 5 million barrels of oil (210 million gallons) were spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. In November 2012, British Petroleum and the U.S. Department of Justice settled federal criminal charges, with BP pleading guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter, two misdemeanors, and a felony count of lying to Congress. BP also agreed to four years of government monitoring of its safety practices and ethics, and the Environmental Protection Agency announced that BP would be temporarily banned from new contracts with the US government. In 2014, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that BP was primarily responsible for the oil spill because of its “gross negligence” and “reckless conduct.” As of 2018, cleanup costs, charges, and penalties had cost the company more than $65 billion (including $18.7 billion in fines, the largest corporate settlement in U.S. history). By comparison, the Japan Center for Economic Research has estimated that cleanup costs for Fukushima will reach at least $470 billion.


The most urgent example of the perils of “business as usual” is global warming, which is “worse, much worse” than most people think (Wallace-Wells, 2019). Without major change in how corporations conduct business (and how billions of people conduct their lives), parts of planet earth could well become “close to uninhabitable” by the end of this century, and other parts will surely become “horribly inhospitable” (Wallace-Wells, 2019). We do not claim that solutions to this problem are simple, and we thank Japan Focus editor Mark Selden for pointing out the importance of considering the possibility (and necessity?) of “slower growth in a redistributive world economy” (email of December 25, 2019). We also recognize that some analysts believe nuclear energy is a “viable and practical solution to global warming” (Cravens, 2008). Even Adam Higginbotham (2019), author of a terrifying history of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, observes that from a statistical point of view, nuclear power is safer than alternative sources of energy such as coal and oil.


January 21, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , , | Leave a comment

Japan Gov’t liability denied for nukes damages, Tepco to pay minimal damages to evacuees

Satoshi Abe (standing), head of the plaintiffs’ legal team, speaks at a news conference following the Yamagata District Court ruling in the city of Yamagata, northern Japan, on Dec. 17. 2019.
TEPCO ordered to pay minimal damages to Fukushima evacuees; Japan gov’t liability denied
December 18, 2019
YAMAGATA — The Yamagata District Court on Dec. 17 ordered Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to pay a total of 440,000 yen in damages to five plaintiffs who evacuated due to the March 2011 triple-meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, while also absolving the Japanese state of liability.
Not only did the ruling dismiss the plaintiffs’ damages claims against the central government, the compensation amount falls far short of the more than 8-billion-yen (about $73 million) total sought by the 734 people in 201 households who were party to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs, who evacuated from Fukushima to neighboring Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan following the nuclear disaster, have stated they will appeal.
The ruling was the 13th by a district court in similar cases filed across the country. Among those, 10 lawsuits were filed against the government and TEPCO, and the state was found liable in six of them.
Regarding the plaintiffs beyond the five granted compensation, Presiding Judge Nobuyuki Kaihara stated that “the consolation money sought does not exceed what they have already been paid by Tokyo Electric,” among other reasons for denying them damages.
The decision went on to say that “there was a limit” to what degree the tsunami that disabled the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s cooling systems could have been predicted, and therefore the Japanese state was not liable to pay the nuclear disaster evacuees compensation. The court also found that though TEPCO was liable for some damages, “we cannot conclude that the company committed gross negligence. Practically speaking, it is difficult to say that the firm could have implemented rational controls (at the plant) to prevent an accident.”
The plaintiffs’ suit had demanded 11 million yen in compensation per person — the highest of any nuclear disaster evacuee civil suit in Japan save one filed with the Fukushima District Court. More than 90% of the households that were party to the Yamagata lawsuit had lived in the city of Fukushima and other parts of the northeastern prefecture not covered by mandatory evacuation orders.
“The ruling was a result that betrayed our expectations,” commented Satoshi Abe, who led the plaintiffs’ legal team. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulation Authority secretariat refrained from comment on the case, while TEPCO stated that it would “examine the content of the ruling and consider a response.”
Court denies state liability for nuke damages
December 18, 2019
YAMAGATA (Jiji Press) — The Yamagata District Court rejected Tuesday the claim that the government is liable for damages over the March 2011 accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
Meanwhile, the court ordered TEPCO to pay a total of ¥440,000 in compensation to five plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by 734 people of 201 households who evacuated to Yamagata Prefecture after the nuclear accident.
About 90% of the plaintiffs, who sought some ¥8,074 million in total damages, are evacuees from outside areas for which a government evacuation order was issued following the triple meltdown accident at the plant, stricken by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The ruling marked the 10th of its kind for collective lawsuits against the government and TEPCO over the nuclear accident. This is the fourth time that state liability for damages has been denied.
The plaintiffs said the government and TEPCO could have predicted a tsunami that would lead to a nuclear accident on the basis of a long-term assessment to forecast the scale and probability of earthquakes. The assessment was disclosed by a government organization in 2002.
The accident could have been avoided if the government and TEPCO had set up coastal levees and made the emergency power system watertight, the plaintiffs also said.
But Presiding Judge Nobuyuki Kaihara rejected the claim of government liability for compensation. “Although there was a foreseeability [of the accident], we can’t help saying that there was a limit to it,” he said.
The court ordered TEPCO to pay some compensation under the law to compensate for nuclear-related damages.
“I wanted [the court] to understand our hardship,” said a female plaintiff who evacuated with her three children from Fukushima Prefecture, which hosts the crippled nuclear power plant

December 24, 2019 Posted by | fukushima 2019 | , , , , | Leave a comment

Despite Fukushima acquittals, TEPCO must do more to regain public trust

September 20, 2019
The Tokyo District Court has acquitted three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Holdings Inc. of professional negligence causing death or injury over the March 2011 nuclear meltdowns at the utility’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
At issue was whether the three officials could have foreseen the nuclear disaster triggered by tsunamis that hit Fukushima Prefecture in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 and averted the damage. In its verdict, the court ruled out the predictability on the part of the former senior executives, who were forcibly indicted over the disaster, highlighting the huge hurdles in holding the defendants liable for the catastrophe in a criminal court.
While the ruling acknowledged that the three men were aware that massive tsunamis could strike the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant based on a report from their subordinates and through meetings, the court pointed out that the report and other information lacked sufficient grounds and were not enough to mandate them to suspend the operation of the nuclear plant to avoid an accident.
In criminal trials, defendants may be detained if found guilty, and therefore stricter fact-finding is called for than in civil trials. The reasoning that the defendants cannot be found guilty of negligence unless they could predict damage with a sense of urgency was behind the latest ruling in favor of TEPCO bosses.
The report in question pertained to the long-term evaluation of earthquake risks that the government’s Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion released in 2002. While the evaluation stated that massive tsunamis could arise off Fukushima Prefecture, the court decision ruled out the credibility of the evaluation itself.
However, the ruling does not exonerate TEPCO from its responsibility for the nuclear crisis once and for all.
The government’s fact-finding committee set up to investigate the Fukushima disaster recognized that there were composite problems on the part of the government and TEPCO. In addition, the Diet’s independent investigation commission even concluded that the nuclear disaster was a “man-made calamity.” These findings will not be overturned by the latest court decision.
In the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the then Soviet Union in 1986, the Japanese government and the country’s electric industry including TEPCO repeatedly insisted that there would be no nuclear accident in Japan. Yet decades later, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster did happen.
As a matter of course, power companies must pursue the safety of their nuclear complexes to the maximum extent in anticipation of all possible scenarios, including natural disasters. Once a nuclear accident occurs, people are driven out of their hometowns and deprived of them. More than eight years after the onset of the Fukushima crisis, over 40,000 Fukushima residents are still living as evacuees within and outside the prefecture. The price that people have to pay for nuclear disasters is way too high.
Even though the three former executives were declared innocent, TEPCO needs to continue organizational efforts to recover public trust.

September 26, 2019 Posted by | fukushima 2019 | , , , | Leave a comment

TEPCO acquittals spark ire: ‘People who died cannot rest in peace’

Members of a support group for a criminal complaint over the Fukushima nuclear accident show papers on Sept. 19 in front of the Tokyo District Court that read: “All are innocent. It is an unjustified ruling.”
September 20, 2019
Bewilderment quickly turned into outrage after the Tokyo District Court absolved three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. of criminal responsibility for the 2011 nuclear accident that forced thousands of residents to flee.
Some of those affected by the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami say that their loved ones who died after evacuation orders were issued will receive no justice.
Soon after 1:15 p.m. on Sept. 19, members of a group that supports the criminal complaint against the former executives appeared in front of the district court and held up papers that read: “All are innocent. It is an unjustified ruling.”
People waiting there for the ruling roared in anger, with some muttering, “This must be a joke.”
Tsunehisa Katsumata, 79, a former TEPCO chairman, Ichiro Takekuro, 73, a former vice president, and Sakae Muto, 69, also a former vice president, had received mandatory indictments on charges of professional negligence resulting in the deaths of 44 people who were forced to evacuate and the injuries of others at the start of the nuclear disaster.
They were cleared of the charges after the court ruled that they could not have realistically foreseen a disaster of such magnitude.
“As I have thought, there is a gap in common sense (between the court) and the general public,” Masakatsu Kanno, 75, said after hearing the ruling in the public gallery in the court.
Kanno was relocated from Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, a host town of the crippled nuclear plant, to Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, after the accident.
When the tsunami slammed into the nuclear plant on March 11, 2011, his father, Kenzo, was an inpatient at Futaba Hospital in Okuma. Kenzo was forced to stay in the hospital for several days.
He was later transferred to evacuation centers and hospitals, covering a total distance of 250 kilometers. In June that year, he died at the age of 99.
“Many people were forced to evacuate and are still placed in a situation in which they have no prospects of returning (to their hometowns),” Kanno said. “Don’t the top executives of TEPCO have to take responsibility?”
Mieko Okubo, 66, an evacuee who returned to her hometown of Iitate, about 40 km from the nuclear plant, in spring this year, listened to the ruling on her television.
A month after the nuclear accident unfolded, residents in Iitate were told that they will be ordered to evacuate.
Okubo at the time was living with her father-in-law, Fumio, then 102. He told her: “I don’t want to evacuate. I have lived too long.”
He later hanged himself in the home.
Okubo sued TEPCO, and a court recognized a cause-and-effect relation between the nuclear accident and Fumio’s suicide.
But in the criminal trial of the former executives, the only people indicted over the nuclear disaster, the district court acquitted them all.
“People who died cannot rest in peace. Empty feelings will remain in the hearts of the bereaved family members,” Okubo said.
Prosecutors had twice dropped the case against the three former TEPCO executives, citing a lack of evidence.
But the case went to independent judicial panels of citizens, who recommended mandatory indictments against the three. They were indicted in February 2016.
The prosecution side, citing the central government’s long-term earthquake forecast, argued that the three defendants knew that a towering tsunami could hit the plant but failed to take appropriate countermeasures.
The court questioned the credibility of the forecast.
It also said that it would have been impossible for the three defendants to take measures against all natural phenomena, including tsunami.
Lawyer Shozaburo Ishida, who played the role of a prosecutor in the trial, criticized the ruling at a news conference.
“The court said that nuclear power plants are not required to have absolute safety,” he said. “This is a ruling that took the government’s nuclear power policy into consideration.”
Ishida also took issue with the court’s reasoning.
“If an accident occurs, it is impossible to recover the original state. Is it tolerable for top executives who manage a nuclear power plant to have such a (low) level of thinking?” he said.
Ishida declined to say if he would appeal the ruling to a higher court.
“I want to think about it by examining the ruling in detail and hearing the opinions of people affected (by the nuclear accident),” he said.
Lawyer Yuichi Kaido said some good did come from the trial.
“If the trial was not held, many important pieces of evidence, such as records of meetings of TEPCO and e-mails written by its executives, would not have come to light.”
The court heard, for example, that former Chairman Katsumata had “no interest” in setting up additional safety measures at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Ruiko Muto, head of the group that filed the criminal complaint against the former TEPCO executives, expressed resentment over the ruling.
“Despite the many evidence and testimonies, why weren’t (they) found guilty? I think this ruling is wrong,” she said.

September 26, 2019 Posted by | fukushima 2019 | , , , | Leave a comment

From March 29, 2011: Special Report: Japan engineers knew tsunami could overrun plant

TEPCO’s negligence and responsibility!

Japanese engineers knew a huge tsunami could happen in 2007, but TEPCO management ignored them! Now, no legal punishment for the managers who ignored the scientific facts! Note: this article is from 2011 yet it remains relevant in light of recent events.


Tokyo Electric Power Company, Inc. (TEPCO) Vice President Sakae Muto (C) bows at a news conference at the company head office in Tokyo March 28, 2011.


Special Report: Japan engineers knew tsunami could overrun plant

TOKYO (Reuters) – Over the past two weeks, Japanese government officials and Tokyo Electric Power executives have repeatedly described the deadly combination of the most powerful quake in Japan’s history and the massive tsunami that followed as “soteigai,” or beyond expectations.

When Tokyo Electric President Masataka Shimizu apologized to the people of Japan for the continuing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant he called the double disaster “marvels of nature that we have never experienced before”.

But a review of company and regulatory records shows that Japan and its largest utility repeatedly downplayed dangers and ignored warnings — including a 2007 tsunami study from Tokyo Electric Power Co’s senior safety engineer.

We still have the possibilities that the tsunami height exceeds the determined design height due to the uncertainties regarding the tsunami phenomenon,” Tokyo Electric researchers said in a report reviewed by Reuters.

The research paper concluded that there was a roughly 10 percent chance that a tsunami could test or overrun the defenses of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant within a 50-year span based on the most conservative assumptions.

But Tokyo Electric did nothing to change its safety planning based on that study, which was presented at a nuclear engineering conference in Miami in July 2007.

Meanwhile, Japanese nuclear regulators clung to a model that left crucial safety decisions in the hands of the utility that ran the plant, according to regulatory records, officials and outside experts.

Among examples of the failed opportunities to prepare for disaster, Japanese nuclear regulators never demanded that Tokyo Electric reassess its fundamental assumptions about earthquake and tsunami risk for a nuclear plant built more than four decades ago. In the 1990s, officials urged but did not require that Tokyo Electric and other utilities shore up their system of plant monitoring in the event of a crisis, the record shows.

Even though Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, (NISA) one of the three government bodies charged with nuclear safety, cataloged the damage to nuclear plant vent systems from an earlier earthquake, it did not require those to be protected against future disasters or hardened against explosions.

That marked a sharp break with safety practices put in place in the United States in the 1980s after Three Mile Island, even though Japan modeled its regulation on U.S. precedents and even allowed utilities to use American disaster manuals in some cases.

Ultimately, when the wave was crashing in, everything came down to the ability of Tokyo Electric’s front-line workers to carry out disaster plans under intense pressure.

But even in normal operations, the regulatory record shows Tokyo Electric had been cited for more dangerous operator errors over the past five years than any other utility. In a separate 2008 case, it admitted that a 17-year-old worker had been hired illegally as part of a safety inspection at Fukushima Daiichi.

It’s a bit strange for me that we have officials saying this was outside expectations,” said Hideaki Shiroyama, a professor at the University of Tokyo who has studied nuclear safety policy. “Unexpected things can happen. That’s the world we live in.”

He added: “Both the regulators and TEPCO are trying to avoid responsibility.”

Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California, said the government’s approach of relying heavily on Tokyo Electric to do the right thing largely on its own had clearly failed.

The Japanese government is receiving some advice, but they are relying on the already badly stretched resources of TEPCO to handle this,” said Meshkati, a researcher of the Chernobyl disaster who has been critical of the company’s safety record before. “Time is not on our side.”

The revelation that Tokyo Electric had put a number to the possibility of a tsunami beyond the designed strength of its Fukushima nuclear plant comes at a time when investor confidence in the utility is in fast retreat.

Shares in the world’s largest private utility have lost almost three-fourth of their value — $30 billion — since the March 11 earthquake pushed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into crisis. Analysts see a chance the utility will be nationalized by the Japanese government in the face of mounting liability claims and growing public frustration.


The tsunami research presented by a Tokyo Electric team led by Toshiaki Sakai came on the first day of a three-day conference in July 2007 organized by the International Conference on Nuclear Engineering.

It represented the product of several years of work at Japan’s top utility, prompted by the 2004 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra that had shaken the industry’s accepted wisdom. In that disaster, the tsunami that hit Indonesia and a dozen other countries around the Indian Ocean also flooded a nuclear power plant in southern India. That raised concerns in Tokyo about the risk to Japan’s 55 nuclear plants, many exposed to the dangerous coast in order to have quick access to water for cooling.

Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, some 240 km (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo, was a particular concern.

The 40-year-old nuclear complex was built near a quake zone in the Pacific that had produced earthquakes of magnitude 8 or higher four times in the past 400 years — in 1896, 1793, 1677 and then in 1611, Tokyo Electric researchers had come to understand.

Based on that history, Sakai, a senior safety manager at Tokyo Electric, and his research team applied new science to a simple question: What was the chance that an earthquake-generated wave would hit Fukushima? More pressing, what were the odds that it would be larger than the roughly 6-meter (20 feet) wall of water the plant had been designed to handle?

The tsunami that crashed through the Fukushima plant on March 11 was 14 meters high.

Sakai’s team determined the Fukushima plant was dead certain to be hit by a tsunami of one or two meters in a 50-year period. They put the risk of a wave of 6 meters or more at around 10 percent over the same time span.

In other words, Tokyo Electric scientists realized as early as 2007 that it was quite possible a giant wave would overwhelm the sea walls and other defenses at Fukushima by surpassing engineering assumptions behind the plant’s design that date back to the 1960s.

Company Vice President Sakae Muto said the utility had built its Fukushima nuclear power plant “with a margin for error” based on its assessment of the largest waves to hit the site in the past.

That would have included the magnitude 9.5 Chile earthquake in 1960 that killed 140 in Japan and generated a wave estimated at near 6 meters, roughly in line with the plans for Fukushima Daiichi a decade later.

It’s been pointed out by some that there could be a bigger tsunami than we had planned for, but my understanding of the situation is that there was no consensus among the experts,” Muto said in response to a question from Reuters.

Despite the projection by its own safety engineers that the older assumptions might be mistaken, Tokyo Electric was not breaking any Japanese nuclear safety regulation by its failure to use its new research to fortify Fukushima Daiichi, which was built on the rural Pacific coast to give it quick access to sea water and keep it away from population centers.

There are no legal requirements to re-evaluate site related (safety) features periodically,” the Japanese government said in a response to questions from the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in 2008.

In fact, in safety guidelines issued over the past 20 years, Japanese nuclear safety regulators had all but written off the risk of a severe accident that would test the vaunted safety standards of one of their 55 nuclear reactors, a key pillar of the nation’s energy and export policies.

That has left planning for a strategy to head off runaway meltdown in the worst case scenarios to Tokyo Electric in the belief that the utility was best placed to handle any such crisis, according to published regulations.

In December 2010, for example, Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission said the risk for a severe accident was “extremely low” at reactors like those in operation at Fukushima. The question of how to prepare for those scenarios would be left to utilities, the commission said.

A 1992 policy guideline by the NSC also concluded core damage at one of Japan’s reactors severe enough to release radiation would be an event with a probability of once in 185 years. So with such a limited risk of happening, the best policy, the guidelines say, is to leave emergency response planning to Tokyo electric and other plant operators.


Over the past 20 years, nuclear operators and regulators in Europe and the United States have taken a new approach to managing risk. Rather than simple defenses against failures, researchers have examined worst-case outcomes to test their assumptions, and then required plants to make changes.

They have looked especially at the chance that a single calamity could wipe out an operator’s main defense and its backup, just as the earthquake and tsunami did when the double disaster took out the main power and backup electricity to Fukushima Daiichi.

Japanese nuclear safety regulators have been slow to embrace those changes.

Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), one of three government bodies with responsibility for safety policy and inspections, had published guidelines in 2005 and 2006 based on the advances in regulation elsewhere but did not insist on their application.

Since, in Japanese safety regulation, the application of risk information is scarce in experience � (the) guidelines are in trial use,” the NISA said.

Japanese regulators and Tokyo Electric instead put more emphasis on regular maintenance and programs designed to catch flaws in the components of their aging plants.

That was the thinking behind extending the life of the No. 1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi, which had been scheduled to go out of commission in February after a 40-year run.

But shutting down the reactor would have made it much more difficult for Japan to reach its target of deriving half of its total generation of electricity from nuclear power by June 2010 — or almost double its share in 2007.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) figured it could reach the target by building at least 14 new nuclear plants, and running existing plants harder and longer. Fukushima’s No. 1 reactor was given a 10-year extension after Tokyo Electric submitted a maintenance plan.

Safety regulators, who also belong to METI, did not require Tokyo Electric to rethink the fundamental safety assumptions behind the plant. The utility only had to insure the reactor’s component parts were not being worn down dangerously, according to a 2009 presentation by the utility’s senior maintenance engineer.

That kind of thinking — looking at potential problems with components without seeing the risk to the overall plant — was evident in the way that Japanese officials responded to trouble with backup generators at a nuclear reactor even before the tsunami.

On four occasions over the past four years, safety inspectors from Japan and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were called in to review failures with backup diesel generators at nuclear plants.

In June 2007, an inspector was dispatched to Fukushima’s No. 4 reactor, where the backup generator had caught fire after a circuit breaker was installed improperly, according to the inspector’s report.

There is no need of providing feedback to other plants for the reason that no similar event could occur,” the June 2007 inspection concluded.

The installation had met its safety target. Nothing in that report or any other shows safety inspectors questioned the placement of the generators on low ground near the shore where they proved to be at highest risk for tsunami damage at Fukushima Daiichi.


Japanese nuclear regulators have handed primary responsibility for dealing with nuclear plant emergencies to the utilities themselves. But that hinges on their ability to carry them out in an actual crisis, and the record shows that working in a nuclear reactor has been a dangerous and stressful job in Japan even under routine conditions.

Inspectors with Japan’s Nuclear Energy Safety Organization have recorded 18 safety lapses at Tokyo Electric’s 17 nuclear plants since 2005. Ten of them were attributed to mistakes by staff and repairmen.

They included failures to follow established maintenance procedures and failures to perform prescribed safety checks. Even so, Tokyo Electric was left on its own to set standards for nuclear plant staff certification, a position some IAEA officials had questioned in 2008.

In March 2004, two workers in Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima Daini plant passed out when the oxygen masks they were using – originally designed for use on an airplane – began leaking and allowed nitrogen to seep into their air supply.

The risks also appear to have made it hard to hire for key positions. In 2008, Toshiba admitted it had illegally used six employees under the age of 18 as part of a series of inspections of nuclear power plants at Tokyo Electric and Tohoku Electric. One of those minors, then aged 17, had participated in an inspection of the Fukushima Daiichi No. 5 reactor, Tokyo Electric said then.

The magnitude 9.0 quake struck on Friday afternoon of March 11 — the most powerful in Japan’s long history of them — pushed workers at the Fukushima plant to the breaking point as injuries mounted and panic took hold.

Hiroyuki Nishi, a subcontractor who had been moving scaffolding inside Reactor No. 3 when the quake hit, described a scene of chaos as a massive hook came crashing down next to him. “People were shouting ‘Get out, get out!’” Nishi said. “Everyone was screaming.”

In the pandemonium, workers pleaded to be let out, knowing a tsunami was soon to come. But Tokyo Electric supervisors appealed for calm, saying each worker had to be tested first for radiation exposure. Eventually, the supervisors relented, threw open the doors to the plant and the contractors scrambled for high ground just ahead of the tsunami.

After the wave receded, two employee were missing, apparently washed away while working on unit No. 4. Two contractors were treated for leg fractures and two others were treated for slight injuries. A ninth worker was being treated for a stroke.

In the chaos of the early response, workers did not notice when the diesel pumps at No. 2 ran out of fuel, allowing water levels to fall and fuel to become exposed and overheat. When the Fukushima plant suffered its second hydrogen blast in three days the following Monday, Tokyo electric executives only notified the prime minister’s office an hour later. Seven workers had been injured in the explosion along with four soldiers.

An enraged Prime Minister Naoto Kan pulled up to Tokyo Electric’s headquarters the next morning before dawn. “What the hell is going on?” reporters outside the closed-door discussion reported hearing Kan demand angrily of senior executives.

Errors of judgment by workers in the hot zone and errors of calculation by plant managers hampered the emergency response a full week later as some 600 soldiers and workers struggled to contain the spread of radiation.

On Thursday, two workers at Fukushima were shuttled to the hospital to be treated for potential radiation burns after wading in water in the turbine building of reactor No. 3. The workers had ignored their radiation alarms thinking they were broken.

Then Tokyo electric officials pulled workers back from an effort to pump water out of the No. 2 reactor and reported that radiation readings were 10 million times normal. They later apologized, saying that reading was wrong. The actual reading was still 100,000 times normal, Tokyo Electric said.

The government’s chief spokesman was withering in his assessment. “The radiation readings are an important part of a number of important steps we’re taking to protect safety,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters. “There is no excuse for getting them wrong.”


Although U.S. nuclear plant operators were required to install “hardened” vent systems in the 1980s after the Three Mile Island incident, Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission rejected the need to require such systems in 1992, saying that should be left to the plant operators to decide.

A nuclear power plant’s vent represents one of the last resorts for operators struggling to keep a reactor from pressure that could to blow the building that houses it apart and spread radiation, which is what happened at Chernobyl 25 years ago. A hardened vent in a U.S. plant is designed to behave like the barrel on a rifle, strong enough to withstand an explosive force from within.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded in the late 1980s that the General Electric designed Mark I reactors, like those used at Fukushima, required safety modifications.

The risks they flagged, and that Tokyo did not heed, would come back to haunt Japan in the Fukushima crisis.

First, U.S. researchers concluded that a loss of power at one of the nuclear plants would be one of the “dominant contributors” to the most severe accidents. Flooding of the reactor building would worsen the risks. The NRC also required U.S. plants to install “hard pipe” after concluding the sheet-metal ducts used in Japan could make things much worse.

Venting via a sheet metal duct system could result in a reactor building hydrogen burn,” researchers said in a report published in November 2008.

In the current crisis, the failure of the more vulnerable duct vents in Fukushima’s No. 1 and No. 3 reactors may have contributed to the hydrogen explosions that blew the roof off the first and left the second a tangled hulk of steel beams in the first three days of the crisis.

The plant vents, which connect to the big smokestack-like towers, appear to have been damaged in the quake or the tsunami, one NISA official said.

Even without damage, opening the vulnerable vents in the presence of a build-up of hydrogen gas was a known danger. In the case of Fukushima, opening the vents to relieve pressure was like turning on an acetylene torch and then watching the flame “shoot back into the fuel tank,” said one expert with knowledge of Fukushima who asked not to be identified because of his commercial ties in Japan.

Tokyo Electric began venting the No. 1 reactor on March 12 just after 10 a.m. An hour earlier the pressure in the reactor was twice its designed limit. Six hours later the reactor exploded.

The same pattern held with reactor No. 3. Venting to relieve a dangerous build-up of pressure in the reactor began on March 13. A day later, the outer building – a concrete and steel shell known as the “secondary containment” — exploded.

Toshiaki Sakai, the Tokyo Electric researcher who worked on tsunami risk, also sat on a panel in 2008 that reviewed the damage to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant. In that case, Tokyo Electric safely shut down the plant, which survived a quake 2.5 times stronger than it had been designed to handle.

Sakai and the other panelists agreed that despite the successful outcome the way the ground sank and broke underground pipes needed for firefighting equipment had to be considered “a failure to fulfill expected performance”.

Japanese regulators also knew a major earthquake could damage exhaust ducts. A September 2007 review of damage at the same Tokyo Electric nuclear plant by NISA Deputy Director Akira Fukushima showed two spots where the exhaust ducts had broken.

No new standard was put in place requiring vents to be shored up against potential damage, records show.

Masashi Goto, a former nuclear engineer who has turned critical of the industry, said he believed Tokyo Electric and regulators wrongly focused on the parts of the plant that performed well in the 2007 quake, rather than the weaknesses it exposed. “I think they drew the wrong lesson,” Goto said.

The March 11 quake not only damaged the vents but also the gauges in the Fukushima Daiichi complex, which meant that Tokyo Electric was without much of the instrumentation it needed to assess the situation on the ground during the crisis.

The data we’re getting is very sketchy and makes it impossible for us to do the analysis,” said David Lochbaum, a nuclear expert and analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s hard to connect the dots when there are so few dots.”

In fact, Japan’s NSC had concluded in 1992 that it was important for nuclear plant operators to have access to key gauges and instruments even in the kind of crisis that had not happened then. But it left plans on how to implement that policy entirely to the plant operators.

In the Fukushima accident, most meters and gauges were taken out by the loss of power in the early days of the crisis.

That left a pair of workers in a white Prius to race into the plant to get radiation readings with a handheld device in the early days of the crisis, according to Tokyo Electric.

They could have used robots to go in.

Immediately after the tsunami, a French firm with nuclear expertise shipped robots for use in Fukushima, a European nuclear expert said. The robots are built to withstand high radiation.

But Japan, arguably the country with the most advanced robotics industry, stopped them from arriving in Fukishima, saying such help could only come through government channels, said the expert who asked not to be identified so as not to appear critical of Japan in a moment of crisis.

September 26, 2019 Posted by | fukushima 2019 | , , , , | Leave a comment

‘No one has taken responsibility’: Fukushima victims decry nuclear bosses’ acquittal

jhjmlm.jpgPeople connected to the support group for a criminal lawsuit for the Fukushima nuclear accident are seen outside the Tokyo District Court in the capital’s Chiyoda Ward on Sept. 19, 2019. Some are holding signs that say the innocent verdict for all parties is an unjust decision.

September 20, 2019

TOKYO — On Sept. 19, the Japanese judiciary returned a verdict that there was no question of criminality relating to one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.

According to the ruling by the Tokyo District Court, the meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station could not have been foreseen, thereby acquitting three of the company’s former executives from responsibility for the disaster.

The three apologized again after the decision was handed down. But with no question now as to whether they were criminally liable for what happened in March 2011, evacuees who lost their families and communities have voiced their contempt for the ruling.

But what lessons are there from the trial on the nuclear meltdown that started off after a mandatory indictment?

The decision to acquit all three men came at 1:15 p.m. in the 104 court room, the largest at the Tokyo District Court. The former TEPCO executives stood totally still as Presiding Judge Kenichi Nagafuchi read the text of the ruling aloud. As he did, a stir broke in the gallery, with some even shouting out in shock and disbelief.

Among those watching the proceedings unfold were people who lost their families to the nuclear disaster. A 66-year-old resident of Hirono in Fukushima Prefecture tried to repress her emotions while watching the three in court.

On March 11, 2011, when the tsunamis came rushing to the nuclear power station, her parents were living in “Deauville Futaba” in the town of Okuma, a care home about 4.5 kilometers southwest of the reactors. Her father was 92, and her mother was 88.

Evacuation orders were issued, and three days later on March 14 they were rescued by Japan Self-Defense Force troops alongside other members of the care home. They then appear to have ridden a bus for about 10 hours to arrive at Iwaki Koyo High School, based in the city of Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture.

With no medical facilities on site and only mats to sleep on in the school’s gym, the evacuees began dying one by one. Her mother passed away around March 15, and her father on the night of March 16. Their daughter only learned of their death about a week later, on March 22.

The daughter was born and raised in Okuma, and her home was just about 3 kilometers from the nuclear plant. She led a close-knit life in the community. Her father worked for the town’s trash disposal facility and other places. He didn’t drink, and was a quiet, honest man. He would look forward every year to the overnight trip he and his brothers in arms in World War II would take to the monument for the fallen in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, also in Fukushima Prefecture.

Her mother was a cheerful person who loved to chat. Even at the care home, she would light up the room where she lived. “Because they were opposites, they made a good couple. They were very kind to me,” their daughter said. For Shichigosan, the annual celebration for girls aged three and seven, and boys aged five, her parents bought her a long-sleeved furisode kimono patterned with vibrant chrysanthemum. She treasures the photo they took on that day.

The daughter’s home was washed away by the tsunamis, and the area is set to host an interim storage facility for radioactive soil generated by decontamination work. The town she and her parents shared their lives in is gone, never to return. Looking for answers as to why her parents had to die, and why the accident that caused such serious damage occurred, she chose to participate in the trial as one of the victims.

At a hearing of the trial in November 2018, she said, “Didn’t TEPCO underestimate the threat from tsunamis? No one has taken responsibility for such huge damage wrought by the disaster. It’s unforgivable.”

She remains unconvinced by the not guilty ruling handed down on Sept. 19 this year. After the trial, she spoke quietly, saying, “The three of them might think ‘We were right,’ but from the victims’ points of view, they got away with the damage they caused. The ruling did not bring answers,” she added, “I can’t think of anything else right now.”

Yoshinobu Ishii, 74, of the village of Kawauchi in Fukushima Prefecture, lost his mother, Ei, then aged 91, in the midst of the evacuations. Also a resident at the Deauville Futaba care home, she died around March 14, 2011 after she too was evacuated to Iwaki Koyo High School.

She had raised Ishii and his five siblings as a single mother. “She brought us up in the midst of hardship. It’s terrible that she died alone, with none of us there to be with her,” he said, his voice heavy with regret.

But Ishii has no interest in the criminal court case. “Looking at it in hindsight, they could have taken measures to prevent the accident, but at the time no one expected such a terrible disaster to unfold.”

He spent Sept. 19 at home. “It’s important for us to make use of the lessons learned by the accident. But putting the responsibility for it on someone, that kind of talk, is pointless. After all, my mother isn’t coming back,” he said.

(Japanese original by Kenji Tatsumi and Masanori Makita, City News Department)

September 26, 2019 Posted by | fukushima 2019 | , , , | Leave a comment