In Japan, is a Tepco apology enough?


President of troubled Tokyo Electric Power Co., Masataka Shimizu, center, is joined by company employees as they speak to evacuees from the town of Namie near TEPCO's Fukushima nuclear power plant. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The president of Tokyo Electric Power Co. came to an evacuation center here to apologize to whoever would listen. One of them was Yoshio Sato, wearing a pink trucker cap and a graphic T-shirt marked with a skeleton.

Sato had fled his home during the nuclear emergency at the Tepco-operated Fukushima Daiichi power plant. He left behind his job and almost all of his possessions. His new outfit came from a discount store — angry rebel’s attire that seemed fitting to him when Masataka Shimizu came by unannounced to say he was sorry.

Shimizu did not begin his recent apology tour until a full six weeks after the nuclear disaster — a time lag that the utility company now calls “regrettable.” So far, the belated apologies have done more to foment criticism than win forgiveness, as Tepco struggles to gain back a little public trust.

Shimizu hoped to do just that late last month when he and six other Tepco executives walked into the Big Palette convention hall. As Sato saw it, an earlier apology wouldn’t have repaired anything, but it would have at least convinced him that somebody noticed.

“When I first heard they were coming here, I thought, ‘What is this? A comedy?’ ” Sato said. “It just all seemed so fake.”

Perhaps no society in the world depends on apologies in the manner that Japan does. Social interaction is pinned together with apologetic tics, used when people step into an elevator, make a telephone call or finish their work shift. Leaders of a company in crisis, though, face a higher threshold — and apologizing requires not only a message but also a public exhibition of remorse, often with deep bows at the feet of those who were wronged.

After a 1985 Japan Airlines flight crashed into a mountainside, killing 520, the airline’s president, Yasumoto Takagi, was bowing to mourning relatives within hours of the disaster. He also promised to resign after the airline handled the crisis.

Shimizu, the Tepco chief, was briefly hospitalized for hypertension in the aftermath of the nuclear emergency. He has hinted that he may step down at an unspecified time, after he takes responsibility for the company’s mess. A company spokesman describes him as “quiet and gentle’’; at Big Palette, he came with no formal message, just a plan to bow and listen.

“All I can do is cry,” one evacuee told Shimizu. Another brandished a piece of paper and said, “I want you to make sure you compensate. I want you to promise. I want you to sign this.” Shimizu apologized to both of them.

Then he climbed the stairs to the third floor, where Sato, 44, was waiting.

Other evacuees on the third floor regarded Sato as their leader. He organized their cleanup work. He talked easily to the teenagers. He had an athlete’s build. “Go talk to Yoshio,” one evacuee told the Tepco delegation. “He’s the right person.”

Shimizu lowered himself in front of Sato’s blanket. Six other Tepco executives followed, forming a line along Shimizu’s right and left. Cameras rolled, and Sato felt the shadow of a boom microphone from overhead. Other evacuees shushed for quiet.

Sato had spent weeks building his anger toward Tepco. It rose every time he thought about his home town of Tomioka, six miles from the plant, its main streets now lined with cherry blossoms and nobody to see them. It rose when he thought about his father, 77, and his sad obsession with returning home — to heck with the contamination, the father would say. It rose when he thought about that closet full of clothing, and the home he probably wouldn’t reenter for another “20 or 30 years.”

So Sato, with the cameras rolling, exploded in anger.

He said he didn’t believe the company’s projection that it could stabilize the reactors within six to nine months. He said the company hadn’t been treating its workers properly, taking insufficient steps to ensure their safety. He said it was “ridiculous” to imagine he could have his life back anytime soon.

“We’ll try our best,” Shimizu said, and he kept his head bowed, and he never tried to argue.

Sato later said he felt like a prop, used for Tepco’s image rehabilitation. He didn’t want to play the part. During a rant of several minutes, the Tepco executives had listened dutifully. They’d relied on basic answers: We’ll try our hardest. We’ll do everything we can. We’re sorry.

“I won’t trust Tepco,” Sato finally said, waving them away. “Enough of the apologies.”

“I am very sorry,” Shimizu said.

“Please just go.”

The Tepco officials rose and departed.

In a conversation later, Sato said he wondered what the apology had amounted to. He and his neighbors had sensed little empathy; one evacuee, Tohiaki Kobyashi, likened the executives to “closed-up shells.’’

“But a part of me,” Sato said, “indeed felt it was a good opportunity. What I got back from these executives was four stock phrases. But I let all my emotions out. And after 10 minutes, I did feel better.”

Special correspondents Sachiko Iwata and Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
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