TEPCO makes $4.3 Billion in 2013 despite meltdown. Crime doesn’t pay, criminal negligence does

TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) announced a profit of ¥43.2 billion ($4.3 billion) for the 2013 fiscal year. It is the first time the company moved into the black since an earthquake and tsunami crippled the reactors, leading to a nuclear meltdown in March of 2011.

Despite a drop in electricity sales due to higher than usual winter temperatures, overall sales increased 11 percent from the previous fiscal year due to a rate increase and fuel cost adjustments. Out of ten electric companies, TEPCO was one of the four that posted a profit. The remaining six, which includes power companies in Kansai and Kyushu, recorded a deficit due to relying on fossil fuels to offset the shut down nuclear plants, according to Asahi Shimbun.

Last September, the Abe administration announced that it would give ¥47 billion of taxpayer money to prevent further contaminated water from leaking from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. That amount is far greater than the profits that TEPCO posted on April 30th, meaning that if the government had not given them any money last year, the company would have announced another year of losses.

The company has not made it clear what the profits will be used for and whether any of the money will be used to support supplement the taxpayer funds allocated to clean up the disaster or compensate those who in Fukushima whose homes fell under the evacuation zone. However, TEPCO’s stockholders, which include LDP politicians such as Masahiro Imamura and LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba have a cause to celebrate. Both hold 6000 and 4813 shares in the company respectively.

As nuclear waste continues to leak into the ocean surrounding Fukushima Prefecture, pro-nuclear advocate Shigeru Ishiba who resembles the Japanese anime hero, Anpanman, seems less like a hero, and more like the arch-villain of the series, Baikinman (Germ Man.) Or maybe in the eyes of the LDP, the general public, 80% of which oppose nuclear power are just like “germs.” In any event, for the large number of ruling party members with stock shares in TEPCO, the profits are good news; the losers are everyone else.

Ishiba-man gives an atomic punch to the people of Japan and the clean energy fans in a dramatic fight to save the profitability of TEPCO–in which he owned at least 6,000 shares.


Freelance journalist vs “Nuclear Mafia”: the good guys win…for now

The tale of Tanaka Minoru, the journalist who took on a much feared kingpin in Japan’s nuclear industry, Shiro Shirakawa, and who was sued for nearly $670,000, ended happily. Mr. Shirakawa folded. Mr. Tanaka and his supporters celebrated his semi-victory last week.

The lawsuit was officially dropped in August but the party was a long time in coming.  Although with new legislation on the horizon to darken the changing landscape of freedom of the press here, the celebration was very short.

Taro Yamamoto, Diet Upper House Member and celebrity (left) celebrates victory for freedom of the press with journalist Minoru Tanaka (right)
Taro Yamamoto, Diet Upper House Member and celebrity (left) celebrates victory for freedom of the press with journalist Minoru Tanaka (right) (October 17th)

Last week, on October 18th, more than 50 people with different backgrounds: reporters, editors, politicians, singers and actors gathered in the basement of a Tokyo building to celebrate the rare victory of a journalist against a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) lawsuit.  Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) are designed to censor and silence individual reporters or independent media by forcing them to pay the cost of a legal defense; by doing so- it ruins them financially. These kind of lawsuits are penalized in California and many places in the United States but in Japan, there is no legal protection. The journalist or media outlet who is sued loses (financially), even if they win in court.

All those present at Minoru Tanaka’s victory celebration were people concerned about freedom of the press, and the very essence of democracy, now in danger in Japan as a new secrecy bill is about to pass.

Minoru Tanaka’s story is the story of one man, one journalist. He was sued in 2012 for a story he wrote about a shadowy figure in the Japanese nuclear industrial complex, also sometimes called the nuclear mob (原発マフィア). The plaintiff found the story embarrassing and of course, as always in these cases, he had the financial power and luxury to launch a legal assault on the lone reporter.

In his article published on December 16th, 2011 in Weekly Friday (週刊金曜日), Mr. Tanaka, who has long been investigating and reporting the shady side of Japan’s so-called Nuclear Village also known as the Nuclear Mafia (原発マフィア), focussed on one kingpin. There are few reporters who have a better sense of the complicated relations between politicians, electric power companies, media tycoons, advertisement agencies, construction companies and of course, the Japanese police and the Japanese mafia. The reward for his magnum opus was being sued for a total of 67,000,000 yen by one of Japan’s most powerful nuclear industry businessmen, Shiro Shirakawa, for damage and defamation. Mr. Shirakawa, a former secretary to LDP Diet member and power broker, Hiroshi Mitsuka, is well-connected and has great influence in Japanese society.

It was the first time in Japan that a journalist was sued individually for an article he wrote, but not the magazine that published it. Minoru Tanaka is a hero for some of his supporters. He says he simply did his job as an investigative reporter and was punished for revealing the truth to the public.

Tanaka researched, perhaps too deeply, into the ties that connected Shiro Shirakawa, the plaintiff, to Hiroshi Arakawa, former chairman of TEPCO and also Shirakawa’s alleged links to member of organized crime, the yakuza. Shirakawa, is also the president of New Tech, a company that offers security services to nuclear power facilities. He was reportedly suspected of asking help to gangsters to stop the publication of certain materials and diverting huge profits made in land transactions to politicians. Tanaka’s article also revealed the connections between Shirakawa and Diet member Kamei Shizuka as well as a former high-ranking police official. Shirakawa has also allegedly made death threats to newspapers who interviewed him, resulting in his name often being dropped from articles and the letter “S” being used instead of his name.

Tanaka was lucky to get the article published. Unlike the salaryman reporters at the gigantic Japanese media outlets, he didn’t have to hit his head against the wall of top editors and media tycoons higher in the media hierarchy, who are themselves connected to the nuclear industry and the ruling politicians. However, as a a freelance reporter, he was unlucky that he didn’t have a huge newspaper to pay his legal expenses either.

 “SLAPP are made to destroy your every day life. You can’t work anymore. Every morning when I woke up I had the number 67 million yen floating over my head. It was hell. I couldn’t focus,” Minoru Tanaka said at a speech during the celebration party.

Many attending first apologized for not being able to support Mr. Tanaka the way they wished. Reporters from the mainstream media were afraid to get the same treatment by following up on Tanaka’s report. “I was afraid to be individually sued, like Mr. Tanaka was,” said one reporter from a major Japanese newspaper. Another said, “Shirakawa has a lot of connections and a lot of power. Even writing about the lawsuit could have opened a Pandora’s Box. My editor said just to wait for the verdict.”

While the relieved group was drinking and celebrating, some supporters of freedom of the press within the National Diet, such as Taro Yamamoto, a handsome actor and politician recently elected to the House of Councilors, gave a speech in support of Mr. Tanaka and pointed out the looming danger for Japan’s democracy. “I admire reporters like Tanaka and I am sincerely happy for his victory today. But the Abe administration is now planning to submit a new secrecy bill (Secrets Protection Act) to the Diet to enforce national security. Freedom of information and freedom of the press, the two main pillars of Democracy are jeopardized.”

Civil servants as well as journalists could face up to 10 years in jail if they reported national secrets under the proposed law. Although all countries have legislation for national security—classified information—it is questionable why Japan is changing its law now. The DPJ-led government began to contemplate such a law after a video taken by a Japanese Coast Guard official showing the attack of a Chinese fishing boat against Japanese coast guard boat near the Senkaku Islands was leaked in September 2010. The official line was that it was a collision and not that the Chinese fishing boat was the aggressor. The case also illustrated the perils of protecting sources in Japan and the difficulty of officials speaking to the press.

In the case above a Coast Guard officer who leaked footage of a Chinese “fishing vessel” attacking or ramming into a Japanese Coast  boat, was under a criminal investigation for a violation of the laws mentioned above. The officer released the footage out of good conscience, because he felt the Japanese public wasn’t getting the true story of what happened because the Japanese government was kowtowing to China. He even reportedly sent a copy of the video to CNN on a memory stick, but CNN didn’t examine the data or choose to ignore it.

For releasing the video, the Coast Guard officer was put under criminal investigation. It was only because of massive public support and sympathy that the case was dropped. Technically, it’s illegal to share any secrets or information that a public servant has access to in the course of this work. This law applies to police officers and all government employees. Violators of the law, those who have talked to the press on the record, or off the record, and then been exposed—have been fired, prosecuted or both.

 The U.S. reportedly urged Japan to pass such law to protect information related to national security, defense, diplomacy, counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism. However, judging by past history, the law will most likely be used to muzzle any whistle-blowers, or the release of information that might embarrass Japanese politicians or Japan. Mr. Tanaka’s next quest is to work with other journalists to make sure that SLAPP actions are aggressively slapped down and that new laws don’t infringe on Japan’s freedom of press.

 Unfortunately, the lawsuit against Mr. Tanaka and the contents of his article have been more or less ignored by the mainstream Japanese press. Freedom of the press exists in Japan but in reality, many media groups shy away from using that freedom; they remain caged in a box of their own fears and lack of resolve.

“Strong In The Rain” shines among books on Japan’s 3/11

 Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster by Lucy Birmingham and David Mcneill is a book with the literary density of uranium, it penetrates deeply and leaves the reader with a personal and factual understanding of of Japan’s 3/11 mega-disaster that a simple narrative could never do. The title, is of course, taken from the well-known poem by Kenji Miyazawa about perseverance and compassion. Almost every one in Japan knows the poem–that does not detract from its message.

Strong In The Rain is perhaps the best book about the events of 3/11, the aftermath, and the lessons that were learned and should be learned.
Strong In The Rain is perhaps the best book about the events of 3/11, the aftermath, and the lessons that were learned and should be learned.

The most appropriate expression I can use to describe the book is from the Japanese 痛感 (tsukan) literally to “feel pain” the metaphorical meaning being “to keenly know” something. I wasn’t in Japan when the earthquake and the meltdown devastated the nation; I came back 10 days later. This book makes me feel like I was there–like I lived through it. It’s that powerful and evocative. I know both the authors, so maybe I’m not objective. But this is a powerful and almost majestic book. It’s a book I wish I had written…or could write.

The message of “Strong In The Rain” in its tale of foreign and Japanese heroes and villains–and there are both, remains with the reader long after the book is done. Because the book forces us to face the core of our existence: what is it to survive, who do you save and who do you leave, when do we stand up and when do we shut up? What is it be a hero?

It is a book about some amazing Japanese heroes, like the Mayor Sakurai, who fought the yakuza, the complacent press, the Japanese government, and the nuclear industrial complex that is sometimes referred to as “the nuclear village” or by those in the underworld as “the nuclear mafia.” He’s not an action hero–he’s a man of action, a man who changed the coverage of the nuclear meltdown with a simple heartfelt video uploaded onto You Tube in two languages.
He becomes the embodiment in the text of the best qualities of the Japanese spirit and character.
Ms. Birmingham and Mr. McNeill deftly weave together the accounts of the victims and heroes into a Rashomon like account of 3/11 that creates a 4D picture of the tragedy and it does it without the moral relativism or ambiguity of Akutagawa; some problems are painted in shades of grey, but the authors have the courage to put things in black and white where it matters. Sometimes, there is a right and a wrong, a true and false.

The message of “Strong In The Rain” in its tale of foreign and Japanese heroes and villains–and there are both, remains with the reader long after the book is done. Because the book forces us to face the core of our existence: what is it to survive, who do you save and who do you leave, when do we stand up and when do we shut up? What is it be a hero? You don’t have to be a Japanophile to appreciate the human drama in these stories. Anyone who lives in a country where there is nuclear power and natural calamity will find something of interest in this tome.
The message of “Strong In The Rain” in its tale of foreign and Japanese heroes and villains–and there are both, remains with the reader long after the book is done. Because the book forces us to face the core of our existence: what is it to survive, who do you save and who do you leave, when do we stand up and when do we shut up? What is it be a hero? The book provides the questions and some answers. The book is very dense in that important facts are sometime buried in one or two simple sentences. Blink and you miss something important. It’s not an easy read but it is rewarding.

Entire books could be written on the cowardliness of the mainstream Japanese press–SIR does it in a few paragraphs.

Books about disasters come and go, there half-lives are very short. How many books were there on the financial crisis? How many diatribes written about Goldman Sachs? Most of them are no longer on the bookshelves and only a few will remain in the libraries.
“Strong In The Rain” is a book that I think will weather the passage of time very well. Because there are universal truths in the book about heroism, mortality, disaster and Japanese culture that still be relevant long after the physical evidence of Japan’s greatest natural and man-made (nuclear meltdown) disaster are covered up in dirt and concrete.