WE ARE ASKED TO BELIEVE WASHINGTON OFFICIALS KNEW ALL ALONG THAT WE WERE WORRYING ABOUT NOTHING, AND THAT TO REPORT OTHERWISE IS ‘MALPRACTICE’
I am not entirely clear about what Mr. Blustein is criticizing. The article of mine that he is citing is a daily news story about the findings of the investigation into the Fukushima accident and its aftermath by a private think tank called the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, started by Funabashi Yoichi, former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. Much of Mr. Blustein’s criticism appears to be directed at the findings of Mr. Funabashi’s group, not my article.
But if Mr. Blustein is suggesting that I should not have reported on the findings of this group, then I strongly disagree for several reasons.
First, I found this report to be newsworthy because it was one of the first times that a private-sector think tank in Japan had ever done an independent investigation of this depth and magnitude, and of such significance to public perceptions. In hindsight, I think the report lived up to its expectations: even today, I hear people frequently referring to it in discussing the events at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Also, the expanding role of non-governmental actors is something I was emphasizing in my coverage at the time. I believe this was a byproduct of the increasing public mistrust in the government and major news media’s handling of the accident, which was also a major theme in my coverage. Mr. Funabashi’s group, and the attention its report was getting, seemed a good example of this trend.
Second, I found highly newsworthy the group’s finding (using meticulous sourcing) that Prime Minister Kan Naoto had considered evacuating Tokyo. This is an astounding fact, one that Mr. Kan himself later confirmed to me. The fact that such a step was even considered, even as a contingency plan, speaks volumes about the sense of urgency gripping the highest levels of power in Japan, and shaping the leadership’s response to the nation’s biggest crisis since World War II.
Moreover, the significance of Mr. Kan’s contingency planning is not in any way nullified by Mr. Blustein’s assertion that some U.S. officials “knew” that an evacuation was unnecessary. Were those the same U.S. officials who were warning after the accident that the No. 4 spent fuel pool was emptying of water, leaving the exposed fuel rods at risk of a larger explosion that could very well have forced Tokyo’s evacuation?
There were many opinions flying around at the time, and information in both Tokyo and Washington was fragmentary and incomplete at best. Even today, we have yet to receive a full account of what happened at Fukushima. So I see no basis for accepting the claim that some group of American officials possessed an all-seeing, all-knowing perspective.
Even farther fetched, it seems to me, is the assertion that the existence of these all-knowing U.S. officials would somehow render trivial or unnewsworthy the decisions being made during those fateful, anguish-filled days by the leader of Japan.
— Martin Fackler, The New York Times
Paul Blustein says Tokyo-based correspondents are guilty of spreading “misinformation” because some of us have reported claims that Japan’s capital was in danger after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
He singles out a recent Al-Jazeera America documentary that I helped produce, in which former Prime Minister Kan described his fears that Tokyo might have been catastrophically affected by the fallout from the plant.
Specifically, Mr. Blustein chides us for not reporting that the U.S. authorities “knew” Tokyo was not in danger.
I’m puzzled by this criticism. It seems to suggest that we should outweigh or dismiss the views of Japan’s sitting prime minister at the time of the disaster in favor of those of some U.S. officials in Washington. It also seems to ignore the growing body of evidence to the contrary.
To cite only the latest intervention into this debate that I know of, Kyle Cleveland of Temple University Japan has written a well-sourced essay this year revealing that U.S. officials in Japan were concerned enough in March 2011 about the possibility of evacuation to have destroyed thousands of documents at military and diplomatic facilities.
Mr. Blustein may also be aware that Kevin Maher, former director of the Office of Japan Affairs also said in his 2011 (Japanese) book, The Japan That Can’t Decide, that U.S. officials in Japan planned to evacuate 90,000 citizens from Tokyo during the disaster.
We would also have to dismiss the first independent report into the disaster, led by Yoichi Funabashi and a team of lawyers, journalists and experts, which criticized Kan but concluded that not only was Tokyo under threat but that he had probably saved it.
Mr. Blustein may have missed a press conference last year at the FCCJ by the governor of Niigata, Hirohiko Izumida, who said TEPCO was extremely lucky to have just finished the onsite radiation-proof bunker at Fukushima Daiichi at the time of the accident. “Without that, we would not be sitting here today,” he said.
It may be that all these people are mistaken and that U.S. officials thousands of miles away knew better, in which case I hope Mr. Blustein will tell us why.
On the Al-Jazeera America program he mentions, I was one of the two Japan-based reporters who researched the show and suggested interviewees, though I had no control over final content. The producers interviewed Kan, but also METI, TEPCO, and a pro-nuclear academic. The program took pains to dismiss U.S. concerns over radiation. It was, in my view, a model of objectivity.
I was here in March 2011 and vividly remember the confusion, uncertainty and fear that permeated all levels of society in Tokyo, including the government. We are now asked to believe that somewhere in Washington a core of officials knew all along that we were worrying about nothing, and that to report otherwise is “malpractice.” I’ll stick to reporting what I know.
— David McNeill, The Independent and Economist