TOKYO (Reuters) - Public trust in the Japanese government faces its biggest test since World War Two over the handling of the nation’s nuclear crisis, raising concerns that a breakdown in confidence could fuel panic and chaos if appeals for calm go unheeded.
Foreigners are leaving Tokyo, or shutting themselves indoors, and supermarket shelves are running empty despite authorities assuring citizens there is no need to panic from the crisis unfolding at a quake-stricken nuclear power plant.
The government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan was already unpopular before the disasters.
“This government is useless,” Masako Kitajima, a Tokyo office worker in her 50s, said as radiation levels ticked up in the city of around 12 million people, more than 200 km south of the nuclear plant where officials battled to avert disaster.
Tokyo resident Masashi Yoshida, 53, agreed.
When asked for his assessment of the government’s performance, he replied: “It’s been awful.”
“They’ve been giving information far too late. They should have consulted with other countries and experts. They tried too hard to do it all themselves. I think they panicked themselves, and couldn’t think straight. Japan would be better off if we went without politicians for 10 years.”
Even the local mayor of a town close to the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex complained that the government had failed to keep his office updated on the situation.
“We’ve been asking the prefecture and the government to give us information quickly but we’ve been having to force information out of them,” said Katsunobu Sakurai, mayor of Minamisoma.
Public trust in the government and nuclear authorities is critical to ensuring against undue panic, experts said.
“It’s a matter of legitimacy and how much you believe in the organisation,” said Chuo University professor Steven Reed.
“What it means is that people don’t necessarily cooperate when the government asks them to do something.”
Some local media have also started to adopt a critical tone of the government and especially the stricken nuclear plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co, for failing to keep the public well informed on the situation.
Tokyo Electric officials has given numerous news conferences, but they speak rapidly and use terms beyond ordinary people’s grasp.
“Information is the essence of crisis management,” said a Mainichi newspaper editorial pointing to poor coordination among the prime minister, nuclear safety officials and Tokyo Electric.
“Based on real-time information, it is vital for the government to join as one with experts in nuclear power and radiation, crisis managers and experts in public relations and risk communication to work to make information available.”
The Yomiuri newspaper — no fan of Kan’s government at the best of times — was far harsher, charging that anxiety was rising due to a total lack of government plan.
Struggling with a rapidly worsening situations, Kan blasted Tokyo Electric officials for failing to keep him informed.
“Televisions reported an explosion. But nothing was said to the premier’s office for about an hour,” Kyodo news agency quoted him as telling company executives at their head office.
“What the hell is going on?”
But not everyone has lost faith in the authorities.
Analysts said the government was doing the best it could do in a difficult and rapidly changing situation.
“They are doing their best to give a constant stream of information,” said Deborah Hayden, managing partner at consultancy Kreab Gavin Anderson, noting that the spread of social media like Twitter made it hard to keep rumours from spreading, undermining confidence in official accounts.
Top government spokesman Yukio Edano has done a relatively good job, experts said, giving frequent televised briefings, using easy-to-understand terms to give the latest information, though in the first days he sometimes appeared behind the curve.
“I want to believe the government,” said Hiroto Yanuma, a first-year’s grad student in chemistry who said he was worried about social turmoil if things went badly wrong.
“I want them to do a good job and I think they’re really trying hard. I see Kan and Edano on TV all the time and wonder when they sleep.”
But many others are less flattering.
“All I can say is that the government and TEPCO (Tokyo Electric) are totally behind the curve,” said Yuichi Iwai, a 39-year old IT engineer.
“The confusion is made worse by the sensational media coverage. Under such conditions I tend to get better information through Twitter.”
Survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also frustrated.
“The state and the electricity firm were saying the volume (of radiation) is insignificant, but I think they’re taking this situation so lightly,” 80-year old Haruhide Tamamoto from Hiroshima was quoted by Kyodo news agency as saying.
Additional reporting by Terril Yue Jones and Shinichi Saoshiro; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Miral Fahmy