Japan is known as having some the world's most developed earthquake- and tsunami-detection systems. However, the destruction caused on March 11 amply illustrated what can happen even when it is well prepared for crises.
Imagine what happens in a crisis when you are not well prepared. We believe that this disaster has illustrated Japan's lack of preparedness in a different sense: crisis communication.
While it must be said that DPJ politicians have been a constant fixture on TV since the earthquake and tsunami hit, overall Japan has not done a good job of communicating the situation on the ground (especially that of Tokyo) to the rest of the world.
The lack of preparedness and the lack of a holistic strategy to disseminate accurate information to outside audiences — who watched in horror as the pictures of towns being reduced to rubble and explosions at Fukushima's nuclear power plant were beamed across the world — quickly resulted in a chaotic blur of misinformation and half truths being spread across rolling news channels and the Internet.
The rest of the world therefore assumed the worst, which resulted in a number of governments relocating their embassies outside of Tokyo (or closing them indefinitely) and many foreigners being pressured by their loved ones to leave the region, if not the country. If you were to believe some of the foreign reporting, Tokyo had now become a "ghost town."
The truth of the matter is, according to a March 29 poll of foreign companies by the American Chamber of Commerce in Tokyo, 87 percent of the 210 respondents are running either "business as usual" or at a "slightly reduced service level."
The same poll asked the question of foreign firms, "What is your primary concern arising from the quake/tsunami in terms of business over the next three months?" Most firms answered that "availability of electrical power" was their main concern (35 percent), as this was already a reality with rolling blackouts enforced in parts of Tokyo and surrounding areas, but this was followed by "airborne radiological risk" (24 percent) and "food/water safety" (23 percent) — the true threat of which has yet to be clearly spelled out by the government in a credible way.
When asked, "What was the biggest challenge you confronted during the crisis?" time and time again, the same messages came back: "misinformed and sensationalized rumors"; "lack of consistent and accurate information about nuclear risk and rolling blackouts"; and "obtaining accurate, complete and timely information to make prudent business decisions" were typical of the responses.
This illustrates that the government's crisis communication response was inadequate, especially from the perspective of the international community.
Japan and its politicians ignore foreign media at their peril. By not taking the reigns on communicating to the foreign broadcast media (many of whom of course do not speak Japanese), it was easy for the misinformation to spiral out of control, whether the source be false messages claiming to be from Tepco spread via social networks or sensationalist foreign reporting that has even led to members of the public naming and shaming the worst offenders.
In actual fact, the foreign broadcast media are one of the most critical communication channels for Japan, and this is a fact that the government needs to recognize. When a disaster such as this occurs, the audience that needs to be addressed does not just consist of Japanese people domestically, but also foreign residents and the entire global community. Not addressing these audiences in a consistent, timely and accurate fashion will ultimately be to Japan's detriment.
There are already a number of lessons can be learned from the current crisis that can be addressed immediately.
First: crisis preparedness. Japan is already challenged by the greatly reduced number of foreign correspondents stationed here compared to a few years ago. This makes it even more important that there be a plan in place of how to get the right message out in a crisis: Who do we call on to speak, to which audiences, and at what intervals? This plan was not in place. The response was largely ad hoc and, as such, inadequate.
Second: risk communication. There are plenty of English-speaking scientists, medical doctors and business people available to speak to the media, but they were not prepared in advance in case of a disaster. Risk communication should be carried out through the proactive dissemination of information by a prearranged group of media-trained experts that are able to discuss science and facts, without leaving this responsibility to TV reporters who are not specialists.
Third: the lack of a government spokesperson for foreign audiences. During the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck Kobe and the surrounding areas in 1995, the minister for foreign affairs was actually part of the crisis team. This time around, there was no information made available by an English-speaker directly from the government. Although the government did start using simultaneous interpreters, as anyone who has had contact with both languages will know, the inherent vagueness of Japanese creates many challenges in translation, which risks confusing the audience further. Therefore, it is imperative that the government have an English-speaking minister or spokesman available and visible to provide credibility and leadership during such times.
These challenges are of course also opportunities for us to better ready ourselves in case of any future incidents, and at the same time will help to make the bonds between Japan and its many overseas friends stronger.
When Japan has the attention of the entire globe, it must not ignore the outside world.
Kumi Sato (pictured) is president and CEO of Cosmo Public Relations and chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. Michael Alfant is president and CEO of Fusion Systems Japan and president of the ACCJ.