Friday, April 08, 2011

In praise of the Japanese government.

There has been a lot of criticism of Naoto Kan's administration since the quake.  There have been accusations that they haven't been on the ball, they've have kept the public in the dark, they have let Tepco come close to destroying Japan etc.  You will even hear many many people openly doubt what the government says about radiation levels in the air and food.  I find this idea particularly distasteful.

Usually I am no fan of the Japanese government but I think they are doing a sterling job.  I'm so impressed, in fact, that I'm considering staying in Japan far longer than I would have.

Firstly, the suggestion that we are being lied to about radiation levels is just absurd.  Radiation levels are independently verifiable, and the amount of measuring going on makes the idea of a vast shadowy conspiracy simply unfeasible.  For example, radiation is being measured in over 1,400 places in Fukushima prefecture alone.  Reported radiation levels in different kinds of seafood and agricultural products are so specific, so jargonized and so opaque that it would be senseless to make them up.  Instead, rather than a situation where the government telling us it's safe when it's actually dangerous, what is really happening is that the media and the public is indulging in fearmongering and panic, so that danger is created where none exists, and risk is vastly exaggerated.  For instance, the increased cancer risk derived from eating 'contaminated' seafood is so negligible that it is completely outweighed by the extra health risk that is incurred when an individual chooses another protein source that is less healthy - such as beef or pork. 

In fact, announcements on radiation levels in food are reliable and so precise that they reflect the Japanese penchant to be anal.  Considering these measurements, the government takes off the market those products that exceed the set levels of radiation - and those levels themselves are extraordinarily strict.  This is because when they were set the authorities wanted to be as thorough and cautious as possible - leaving large margins of safety, mainly because the long-term effects of small radiation levels were largely unknown.  In fact, there is very little expert opinion supporting the idea of any ill-effects from very low radiation doses, so in all probability those set radiation levels are, if anything, too low. 

When the government does make an announcement about an agricultural product they do so with obvious reluctance.  Two days ago they made such an announcement regarding sand lances caught in Kitaibaraki, which has led to a general fishing ban throughout the whole of Ibaraki.  Whenever something like this happens the government takes much of the blame.  They wouldn't do so unless they had to.  So in a sense I enjoy hearing such news, because it means it's trustworthy.

So that's why I trust the Japanese government when they tell me this or that seafood is safe to eat.  That, plus the fact I would never be willing to give up sushi.

I also believe that Tepco should not be receiving so much criticism.  It is true that they have been involved in safety scandals in the past.  For example, in 2002 Tepco admitted they had falsified safety records at the number reactor at Fukushima Daiichi plant.  IAEA officials have also issued warnings about Japanese nuclear reactors in the past, especially in regard to massive earthquakes.  However there is no serious suggestion that I am aware of that this accident could have been prevented.  It was just one of those things, and the Japanese are dealing with it as best as humanly possible.

No comments: