It is important to note that the recent 9.0 earthquake off the north-east coast of Honshu, Japan was not responsible for the unfolding catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear power generation plant. The structures were designed to withstand the impact of a geological movement of this order. They did so admirably, like nearly all the swaying skyscrapers, housing complexes, railways, bridges, and multistorey freeways across much of Tokyo.

The steadfastness of these structures is clear evidence that a sensible regulatory regime, rigorously enforced, results in reliable construction outcomes and protects life, limb and property.

The Japanese architects and engineers, and the government agencies responsible for supervising them since the Great Hanshin earthquake that hit Kobe in 1995, deserve international acclaim for their outstanding efforts.

It was, of course, the massive tsunami that is the devil in the nuclear pile in this instance. The huge wave knocked out the cooling systems and their back-ups at the Fukushima plant and this led inevitably — and predictably — to the current crisis.

So what critical lessons may be learnt from this “disaster in slow motion” at Fukushima?

First, locating the plant right on the coast, in a geologically unstable zone, was nothing short of stupid.  Experts had warned about this for more than a decade. The placing of the plant right on the coast was mainly about maximising profits for a privately owned and operated corporation, with little regard for public safety and community well-being. To put this kind of operation where it is vulnerable to a post-quake tsunami is evidence of appalling negligence.

Obviously the levels of supervision in regard to planning and operating the plant at Fukushima also demand urgent criminal investigation. They are in stark contrast to the much more scrupulous regulating of building practices in Japan since the Kobe earthquake .

A second lesson that needs highlighting relates to the entrenched culture of “money politics” that has been at the heart of the Japanese political system for decades, resulting in widespread corruption and a scandalous disregard of the public good.

Private corporations offer politicians bribes in return for political favours, such as setting up plants in regions that may be profitable in the medium term but which can have catastrophic consequences for people and whole communities.

So this lesson needs spelling out. Deregulated private enterprise, which thinks it has an unfettered right to pursue its own interests at the expense of people’s lives and livelihoods, is a terrible danger to the public good. This is exactly the same lesson we should have learnt following the 2008-09 global financial crisis. It is a lesson that is still resisted by entrenched CEOs and their cronies who assert that their massive salaries and bonuses are in the public interest. Poppycock!

This lesson is further highlighted by the fact that for years experts have warned that the Fukushima plant had reached its use-by date 10 years ago. Its technology was outmoded and increasingly unsafe. The recommendations of inspectors were mostly overlooked.

Those managers and officials should face prosecution for their failure to act in this instance. Their slothfulness renders them criminally culpable in the nuclear catastrophe that is now occurring on Tokyo’s doorstep.

Another lesson has to do with weak governance. In this respect, Japan is very like contemporary Australia. Politicians prefer populism to sound public policy. Political leaders think that opinion polls rather than ideas and ideals are what gives them legitimacy. Political debates have become puerile slanging matches and grudge competitions. All this when the times require, as never before, inspired and inspiring leadership.

Moreover, Japan’s governance system is grotesquely bureaucratised, in-bred, and in many areas shockingly incompetent. Much the same can be said of contemporary Australia — especially at state government levels. Meanwhile, the people suffer and the public good as measured by good schools and universities, good hospitals and health care systems, good public transport, and well-maintained infrastructure is in serious decline.

Prime Minister Kan is  under immense pressure to address the current crisis with all the urgency and sophistication it demands. But what we have already seen is reminiscent of the government response to the Kobe earthquake. Confusion, dissembling, contorted explanations, outright lies, and excruciatingly slow response times all point to governance ineptitude on a horrifying scale.

Meanwhile, in Australia it appears that the opponents of nuclear energy are almost beside themselves with delight at the tragedy that is happening in Fukushima. They appear oblivious to the human culpability — mental laziness, moral turpitude, and n-ked greed — that has brought this catastrophe upon the heads of so many innocent Japanese.

Yes, the first thing we must do is think very carefully about nuclear energy. But to use the current crisis in Japan to shut-down a sober, rational debate about all the issues reflects a level of populist ignorance that is frankly very frightening .

We must also address the deep-rooted problems of governance weakness that is bedeviling all the advanced democracies today. These have to do with shockingly low levels of public debate, where the loudest shouting wins, rather than a thoughtful weighing of all the relevant issues.

Japan needs all the help and compassion that a good ally that has benefited from the Japanese economy for more than half a century can offer. It’s time for Australia to step up.

Allan Patience has been a professor at Sophia University, Tokyo, since 2008. Next month he will join the Asia Institute in the University of Melbourne.

Peter Fray

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