The Japanese Government's Appalling Earthquake Response

Residents in the radiation danger zone, instructed to stay inside their homes, are venturing out in search of food and fuel. A Japanese businessman in the country's northeast tells Joan Juliet Buck how government incompetence is killing people who escaped the earthquake.

03.17.11 9:57 PM ET

Writer, cultural critic, and actor Joan Juliet Buck wrote to a foreign-born Japanese friend in the food business to ask him how we in America could help Japan. Below is his answer. Tellingly, he does not want to be identified: He has sent his wife, his mother, and his three boys out of the country, and wants to keep his anonymity because the nationalist feeling in Japan is that anyone who leaves the country or sends their family away is betraying Japan. 

“As you are a journalist,” he wrote back, “first I would like to explain how the Japanese government and bureaucrats are incompetent against the crisis.”

In the email he sent me, he combined local press reports with his own observations. The Japanese Red Cross can’t accept the food he is trying to donate for the refugees because there is no gasoline to get it into the stricken areas. Vehicles cannot get through to the affected areas, and Japan’s military, called the Self Defense Force, was forced to travel to the Tohoku region, in the country’s northeast, in a civilian ferry. People ordered to stay in their homes to shelter from radioactive emissions have neither food nor heat and venture out on foot into maximum danger to look for food.

Here’s a personal look at the situation in Japan today.

“This is all the information we’re getting from the Japanese press: I’m giving it to you in bullet points.

  • No Fuel
  • Because the government did not ease the regulation on the stocks of fossil fuels, there is a severe lack of fuel in all of Tokyo and the Tohoku area. Because there is no fueling point in the area, neither civilian nor military logistical support can go up there. The effects are:

    1. There is no fuel for heating.

    2. Food and medicine are not arriving at the refugee centers.

    3. There is no fuel to operate the machinery for clearing the streets, the debris, and so on, so at this point they are not operating.

    4. People with cars, even the people near the nuclear sites, cannot escape, as the cars have run out of gasoline.

    5. Due to the lack of fuel, elderly people are dying of cold, stress, malnutrition, and lack of medicine. Twenty-four of them have died so far.

    6. Due to lack of food and medicine, the sick and wounded are not getting treatment and cannot be moved to hospitals in other areas.

    7. Medical doctors cannot go into the region because there is nowhere to get gasoline.

    The world needs to understand that incompetence is killing people, even though they were saved from the earthquake.

    NOTE: There are no cars or trucks going through, although the main roads have already been cleared.

  • Slow Decision Making
  • The U.S. government immediately sent an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, after the earthquake. It arrived in the Tohoku area on March 13 at 4 a.m. Japanese time. Last night, on March 16, I learned that the Japanese Self Defense Force from Hokkaido had just left for the Tohoku area. The force was traveling to Tohoku on a civilian ferry and had planned to arrive today, March 17.

    Just today the government decided to send fuel to the region in need.

  • People Around the Nuclear Facilities
  • Within a 30-kilometer radius around the plants, the government has instructed the refugees to stay sealed indoors. However, the government is not sending in food and fuel to these households and these refugee centers. As food and/or fuel run out, the refugees are walking away from their houses and being exposed to radiation. One government official made a hysterical statement accusing private companies of not going into the 30-kilometer area voluntarily.

  • Public Sentiment Is Inhibiting Pressure
  • Currently no press is in the mood to criticize the government. The general public believes that criticism should come later. The opposition parties are also quiet. There is no pressure on the bureaucrats and government to improve the situation.

    I feel that members of the foreign press are also reluctant to criticize the Japanese government at this moment due to the public sentiment.

  • Food and Daily Products
  • I have offered to send 100 cases of various food products to the Japanese Red Cross. They rejected my offer because, as noted above, they cannot transport the goods to the refugee camps. There are only a few prefectures, or states, that can accept donations of food and supplies because most cannot organize the civil service to receive the goods. Most prefectures accept cash donations, but this is not exactly what the refugees need at the moment.

  • Evacuation Area
  • The U.S. government has instructed its civilians to evacuate the area up to 80 kilometers from the nuclear plant, while the Japanese government maintains an evacuation area of only 20 kilometers around the plant. Refugees and residents between 20 and 30 kilometers are instructed to stay sealed inside.

  • Learning From the Kobe Earthquake
  • It seems that the government learned nothing from the Kobe earthquake, in 1995, because it is repeating the same situation.”

    He concludes:

    “You asked what Americans can do to help. When it comes to any response by institutions and volunteers, if the outlet at the area in need is inefficient, all the external aid will be wasted.

    I strongly believe that the press needs to be firm and show how the government is incompetent so as to pressure the bureaucrats and party in power.

    I know this is very difficult and too late, but the world needs to understand that incompetence is killing people, even though they were saved from the earthquake.

    Death due to an earthquake is uncontrollable and one may have to accept it.

    But death by incompetence is unacceptable.

    Tokyo Electricity is no exception, either, as they too have been incompetent. To make use of all the donations around the world, the world needs to be vigilant about how it is being used—or not used.

    As for myself, my wife, mother, and children just left two hours ago and will be flying to London. I am happy that they are away and I feel much less stress because I know they are in a safe place.

    However, I see and hear that there are many, many children and babies suffering at the refugee camps.

    I am extremely disappointed about the situation.

    You are seeing the worst areas on television, but don’t forget that more than 95 percent of Japan is functioning as usual.

    There is absolutely no reason why people have to die after being saved.

    Once again, thank you for your concern and support. Thank you also to all the U.S. citizens who are helping in the Tohoku area. We appreciate the support of the people across the U.S."