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COVID19: What Japan Failed to Learn from Fukushima via Tokyo Review

Michael Larson

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However, perhaps the most worrying parallel between these crises is the way political leaders have stumbled into the same communication and policy missteps as their predecessors. Understanding the connection between the mistakes made a decade ago and the errors being made now might help Japan avoid repeating the missed opportunities of 2011.

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Part of the reason for this delay may have been the administration’s belief that cancelling the Games unilaterally could result in financial liabilities, due to the IOC contract. However, the government’s first concern should clearly be the health and welfare of citizens, and this prioritization was not reflected in official statements, such as when Abe’s told President Trump that even delaying the Games was “not a subject at all.”  Even after this, it took weeks of pressure from prefectural-level leaders and public health officials before the government announced preparations to declare a state of emergency. Given this sluggish response, it is not surprising that crowds continued to flock to urban districts in the Kanto region even as Tokyo recorded nearly 150 new cases of COVID-19 in a single day.

While we still do not know how far the pandemic will spread in Japan, one would have thought that the experience of the meltdowns at Fukushima would have taught the country’s leadership to avoid these kinds of overly optimistic statements, which might save face in the short run but risk breaking trust with the public in the long run.

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In 2011, one of the decisions that prevented the situation at Fukushima from spiraling even further out of control was plant chief Yoshida Masao’s refusal of a direct order from a TEPCO official working inside the prime minister’s office in Tokyo to stop pumping seawater into one of the damaged reactors. Although Yoshida’s actions were lauded, such an intervention should not rely on such an act of heroic defiance. Instead, experts, especially those with local knowledge of the situation, should be empowered.

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