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Japan Suffers Crisis of Confidence After Quake Reveals Faults at Top

By Peter HadfieldSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 1995


DURING ancient times, Japanese emperors would take responsibility for a major earthquake by abdicating. Disasters were a sign that an emperor had committed some sacrilege against his ancestors and could no longer control nature.

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But times have changed.

While Emperor Akihito, who visited quake-stricken Kobe this week, will not step down as a result of the earthquake, the same cannot definitively be said of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.

More than two weeks after the earthquake struck, Mr. Murayama's government is still on the defensive for failing to respond quickly and adequately to the Jan. 17 disaster that left more than 5,000 people dead.

``We did the best we could under the current system,'' was Mr. Murayama's apologetic response to widespread public criticism.

But some political analysts say it was Japan's system of governance, not Murayama's Cabinet, that let down the people of Kobe.

The prime minister was hamstrung by rules, laws, and customs regarding who takes charge after a disaster, they say.

His decisionmaking powers in other areas were also limited, which explains why it took the government in Tokyo so long to respond to offers of help from overseas.

``Those caught in the quake ... fell victim to Japan's bureaucracy, which for reasons of pride and politics rebuffed these goodwill offers,'' stated Tatou Takahama of the Nomura Research Institute.

The debacle goes to the heart of the way in which Japan is governed - not by politicians, but by bureaucrats who often make nebulous decisions and go through a lengthy process of reaching consensus before taking any action.

It is a system that was being challenged even before the quake, as the government tried to deregulate the Japanese economy and eliminate some of the 11,000 rules and regulations governing business.

The fact that red tape and bureaucratic bumbling may have led directly to loss of life in Kobe is likely to increase the pressure on the bureaucracy to reform. The quake may accelerate the pace of deregulation and help change the way Japan is governed.

Engineers have also been engaging in some self-criticism in the aftermath of the earthquake.

The widely-reported failures of large infrastructure, such as railway bridges and elevated highways, caused some red faces in Japan - especially since engineers had dismissed the idea that Japanese highways could suffer the same kind of earthquake damage that San Francisco, in 1989, and Northridge, in 1994, had experienced.

The failures have led to a crisis of confidence, shattering the faith of the Japanese in their technological ability, just as the 1991-92 collapse of a ``bubble'' economy shattered the myth of their financial invincibility four years ago.

But the Japanese may be their own harshest critics. Most ordinary buildings that collapsed were old and built before stricter construction codes came into force. And some of the worst cases of engineering failure may not have been due to design or technological flaws at all, but simply old-fashioned sloppiness and corruption in construction.